What a great experience for my first Mahesh Babu film in theaters! Not a great theater experience exactly (I was alone in there), but a great film to experience on the big screen, and to spend 3 hours of my life totally focused on watching. (No spoilers review here)
Whole plot in 2 paragraphs so we can get it out of the way and start discussing:
Mahesh Babu works for a government agency that performs legal wire taps only with warrants and in cases of national security. Mahesh has designed a secret background program that picks up on fear or excitement or other triggers in voices on cell phones. He illegally taps phones in order to find out about thinks like a child being kidnapped, or a young woman being tricked into an elopement, small scale dangers that he can stop. One night, his program is triggered by a young med student talking to her friend. She is, well, horny. She stumbled upon some online porn videos and now wants to have sex so she can concentrate on her studying again and get her life back on track. Mahesh tracks her down and they start a flirtation. But that is forgotten when one of the tiny problems Mahesh tries to fix, a teenager scared and home alone who he sends a female police constable to comfort, turns into a Big Big problem when she is killed, along with the police constable, by a serial killer.
Mahesh becomes obsessed with tracking down this killer, finding his previous crimes and stopping future ones. He learns his backstory, a little boy raised in a cemetery who only felt pleasure when listening to the sounds of grief. As a child he killed people in his home village in order to enjoy the mourning that followed. As an adult, he expanded his killing causing massive accidents and disasters. With the help of his little brother, raised in the same environment. Mahesh tracks him down through a series of clever uses of social media, and then kills his brother in front of him. He is now focused on Mahesh, which was Mahesh’s plan, to distract him from his mass murder plans. He attempts to kill Mahesh’s family, Mahesh stops him, but is injured. In the hospital, the heroine admits her love out of the blue which ends that story line. Mahesh manages to track down the injured villain where he is hiding out holding a family hostage and convinces the neighbors to help rescue them through a TV soap opera. The villain is captured, escapes, and sets off his first plan, arranging for a massive boulder to fall and roll towards a residential area. Mahesh stops that, so the villain switches back to his original plan, blowing up a hospital. Mahesh figures out which hospital it is, but arrives too late to stop everything, and instead stays to try to help save people. He has a final battle with the villain and kills him, then gives a speech about how we have to remember to connect with people instead of just with computer and TV screens, and the movie ends.
First, this is just such a refreshingly well-made movie! Deep visuals, if you know what I mean, there is something happening everywhere in the frame, you mind is engaged while you are watching. And clean visuals too, you can easily understand everything that is happening at any given moment and how everything relates to everything else.
Especially refreshing in the big action scenes. Even Hollywood directors (Hollywood being the industry that has come to specialize in these big action scenes) struggle to make what is happening clear to the audience in these moments. And Murugadoss does it seemingly effortlessly.
This isn’t the simple central trick of his former films like Ghajini (with the short term memory) or Akira (with the mostly silent heroine), instead he draws out the complexity that is only hinted at in the script with his visuals. It’s not just about “oh no, a hospital is collapsing!” it’s about “will that mother in the background snap out of shock and save her child? Will that running person stop and help the falling person? Is that wall about to collapse?”
And that’s the central question. Will people stop, will people help? Not “will the villains plan succeed?” but, “will people try to stop him?” It’s something said explicitly at the end and hinted at through out, but it is the way the film is filmed that really drives the message home.
Going back to the opening sequence. Niki in the comments was saying that she thinks perhaps the audience would have been less disappointed if it had opened with an action scene. In the heavily promoted first song, we have flashes of action, but no real extended sequence. It feels like that is what should have introduced our hero.
But instead we got something very different. A different kind of crime which couldn’t be solved with a simple fight, and therefore a solution that fit this crime. Two young men standing on a corner talking about the girl they have tricked, she will elope with one of them and then be surprised by “two wedding nights”. The girl arrives, young and uncertain, and mentions sneaking out of the house while grandfather was sleeping, and bringing with her all the jewelry. And we can fill in the plan, seduce an innocent girl who lives alone with an elderly guardian that won’t notice what is happening, get her to sneak out with the family jewelry, and as a bonus get a wedding night, and a rape to pay back the friend that is helping you. Then leave with the jewelry. A small messy crime. Nothing to do with national security, nothing to even be reported to the police, something that would have made this girl and her grandfather miserable but would have no other effect.
And the solution is small and messy too. To have the station chaiwalla and jasmine seller come up and joke with the boys, showing that they know all the details of what is happening, until the boys are spooked and take off, leaving the girl confused and unhappy, but not damaged. And that is when Mahesh shows up. To be the soothing brotherly type who offers her a ride and safely drops her home.
There’s a combination of things here, all aimed at saving the victim not punishing the perpetrators. If they were to simply prevent the elopement, she would try again, she would still trust the boy. If Mahesh were to show up and scare the boys off, she would turn him into her hero, think he is the only safe person in the world. But instead we see that society in general can police itself. It was two almost unnoticed people who scared them off. And Mahesh appears as simply a nice caring person, an example of the kind of respectful nice boy she now knows exists and that she should look for.
And then we get the opening song. Which shows a whole variety of other ways Mahesh saves people. Sometimes, yes, with a fight, we see a snippet of rescuing a small boy from kidnappers. But sometimes in other ways. It’s not about the big fight that makes him look cool, that makes him a hero, it’s about saving the victim in the way that will make them feel the least damaged, emotionally and physically, afterwards.
When I say “it’s not about the big fight that makes him look cool”, I mean both Mahesh the character and Mahesh the actor. There is a speech early on, when his best friend points out that with his brilliant mind and successful history in the software industry, he could do anything, Mahesh says he doesn’t want to do anything. He just wants to help people in the small ways no one else notices.
(An interesting companion to his earlier Srimanthuda)
And this feels like a speech from Mahesh the actor as well. He is choosing to use his superstar powers for this film, for this story. He could do something bigger, a guaranteed hit, but he wanted this film, this film that was about the small things.
Even when we meet our villain, it is still about the small things. Yes, he has killed a lot of people. But not because of some grand plan. And not because of some amazing intelligence or power. Just because he is a broken human person who has lost the ability to care for others. That is the scariest thing, to not care. And the most important thing, to care.
Small digression here. This movie argues that with the screens and the phones and the this and the that, we have lost the ability to care for our fellow man, to actually take a step outside of our homes and make that connection. It always bothers me when people make these arguments, the general “people were more empathetic back in the day” arguments. Because, I don’t think that is true. Yes, we are online more now and so on and so on. But, just to take an American example, we don’t have slavery any more! Or, to put it another way, 150 years ago we had slavery. Talk about not making a human connection, about looking the other way!!!! Clearly this is something humans have always been capable of. It’s just taking different forms as time moves on.
But what makes this movie amazing is how it positions our hero as someone who uses the “bad” new technology for a “good” purpose, and our villain as someone who uses the “good” human connections for a “bad” purpose. S.J. Surya who plays the villain does a brilliantly terrifying job. But what is really terrifying is how this villain is designed, his motivations and personality. At a time when everyone is running away from human connection, to TV shows or text messages, he is running towards it. He craves human misery, real misery that he can see and hear and touch.
(Also, he has great “disturbing guy” hair)
And Mahesh, he wants connections through things he can’t touch or see, but can only hear. Phone calls, whatsapp, viral videos. He uses them all to fool people into creating human connection. He counts on human caring for others, but he creates it through technological falsehoods. A Whatsapp video with a fake sad story in order to track down a real villain. Calling dozens of delivery men with false orders to his house in order to prevent an attack on his family. And finally, at the end, a fake contest on a soap opera to trick women into visiting their neighbors.
It is this last that shows the full story. These women are obsessed with soap operas because it gives them the stories and human drama and connection they crave but have lost the ability to get in reality. And so Mahesh uses that trust they have for the soap opera producers to trick them into helping him, a trust they wouldn’t have for a police officer who knocks on their door. But slowly, as he gets them to leave farther and farther from their house, he builds their trust in the voice on the phone. Until he is able to tell them the truth, that there is a real person in danger right next door, not in the soap opera, and he wants their help to save these people just because it is the right and human thing to do. And they step up! He uses technology as a bridge, but the end result as compassion.
Even the really stupid romance has that same lesson. Rakul Preet Singh, our heroine, first discovers sex and desire through a video that pops up online. She talks about it over the phone with her friend, which Mahesh overhears through his tapping software. And then he wants to turn it into something in reality. But for a long time, the reality and the technical keep conflicting with each other. He follows her using his cell phone, she tries to turn it into reality, he backs off. She shows up at his house having randomly purchased his mother’s old computer online, he can handle the dissatisfaction with the online purchase, but not the fact of her in his parents’ home. There’s this back and forth that isn’t resolved until he almost dies and she admits that she actually cares for him. Technology makes it easy for them to connect, but it is only an almost connection. It’s that final step over the gap that is so difficult.