Angie suggested I re-review this a few weeks back, and this week I am super busy (heads up: possibly no new reviews at all next week), so I didn’t have time to watch something new. Summer weekends are hard! I may need to officially move off of Monday and Tuesday and on to Wednesday and Thursday because I just can’t find the time to watch movies on Saturday and Sunday. Anyway, life gives me lemons, and I make lemonade: a chance to review a film that deserves a second look but doesn’t need a second watch!
There is a way to look at Rajamouli’s career as a series of stepping stones to Bahubali. And in that way, this is the second to last step. I don’t necessarily follow that theory, I go more with the idea that Rajamouli contains a variety of interesting film ideas, some more closely related to each other than others, and everything he has previously done is part of what he does next, as it is for all artists. But even with that theory, Magadheera and Bahubali are super closely related options. Only, different.
On the first watch it is the parts that are almost identical to Bahubali that stand out. The over the top fantasy-action adventure scenes, the forbidden dangerous romance, the amazing special effects based song sequences, the epic moral questions, and on and on. The modern day stuff is just there to suffer through until you get to the “good bits”.
But on second watch, I found myself really enjoying the modern stuff! It feels like Rajamouli was more interested in the past, which let the modern stuff have its own kooky feel to it, totally ridiculous and no logic to it, no big thoughts, no moral quandaries, just a kind of odd variation on the usual Telugu action film romance.
Kajal is also way way better in the modern stuff. She is an experienced good Telugu heroine. But she doesn’t have years of action training or anything like that. Ram Charan does, sort of. At least, he has a lifetime of horse riding behind him along with dance classes and some decent action training. So Ram Charan looks good in the past time. And not bad in the modern either.
It’s clearly a star kid role and film. He gets the big intro scene, the big dance, the awesome unusual haircut, and the comedy scenes mixed with romance mixed with action, the whole audition reel effect. And he’s good, I’m glad his career is doing well now, he has actual talent and charisma in this role. But he isn’t a full all round hero yet, he isn’t quite as good in the modern scenes as he is in the past.
(He does get to dance more in the modern scenes, which is an advantage there)
The biggest star of the film is the plot. Not a terribly original idea, but the way it is presented, the clever little touches and surprising moments, that’s what sends it over the top.
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
Ram Charan is a professional motorcycle jumper, one of those movie careers that doesn’t exist in real life. Doesn’t really matter anyway, just an excuse for him to have a cool intro scene. The real plot starts when he rides away from the competition in a rickshaw, puts his hand out to feel the rain and brushes his fingers against Kajal’s, as she signals for a bus, and immediately falls in love.
This is what I mean by the kooky take on the modern love story. Heroes fall in love at first sight all the time. And reincarnation love stories, when you see someone from a previous life and suddenly remember everything, that’s awfully common too. But to take it to the extreme of one brush of the fingers and you are in love, that’s almost Brechtian fourth wall breaking meta commentary on the ridiculousness of love at first sight.
(This is from later, but it is also a kind of tongue in cheek teasing of the audience, we know they will be in love forever as soon as their hands touch, so the whole song teases us with that happening. Because the song knows that we know that is how these romances work)
And it stays kooky! Ram Charan rushes back to the bus stop looking for the girl he loves. Who he knows nothing about except that she was wearing a white salwar. Kajal, having put a jacket on over her dress, gets to hear his whole crazy speech about being in love with the girl in the white dress without him knowing she is the one he is talking about.
And again, almost Brechtian! Any normal person at this point would assume that Ram Charan was crazy, or trying to run some sort of con, or otherwise extremely dangerous. But Kajal just goes with it, accepts the concept that Ram Charan for some reason is obsessed with a girl in a white dress without even having seen her face. Because that’s what happens in this world, right? People have jobs as motorcycle jump racers, and everyone is always falling in love at first glance, or first touch, perfectly normal.
Kajal just accepts that Ram Charan, for some unknown reason, thinks he is in love with her, but also doesn’t recognize her. And immediately move son to using this to see what she can get out of him. The no fear part of it, that’s a cool kind of meta-statement on how ridiculous the world of Telugu film romance is. The deciding to run a scam and see what she can get out of him, that’s just AWESOME!!!!!
So many heroines are just plain dumb, or boring, or cruel. But Kajal, she’s just a wee bit naughty. Ram Charan is clearly insane in some way and lying, so she gives him some of his own back by pretending to be a friend of herself and getting him to buy her lunch, take her to the movies, all kinds of things with a simple promise of introducing him to “her” eventually. It’s lovely!
And it gets even lovelier, and blatantly meta, when Kajal finally falls in love with him for herself. Because she sees how he fights for “her”. In so many movies we see the boring story of the hero pursuing the heroine, the audience sees all his wonderful heroic moments as he hunts for her, including unnoticed heroism as he defends her honor. The part when he actual gets her is suuuuuuuuuuuper boring. But this movie flips it, Kajal is there it witness all his noble searching and so on, and finally sees him fighting for “her”, that is, the idea of her. She tricks him by saying that the group of young man who just made fun of the real Kajal her had also made fun of the fake mysterious white dress Kajal, and he immediately beats them up. It’s ridiculous, because he didn’t care if they were insulting anyone else, just the girl he doesn’t even recognize when she is right in front of him. And it is similarly ridiculous that Kajal falls in love with him because of how he defends-her-that-he-doesn’t-know-is-her. But ridiculous to the point that it just makes me happy because the film clearly knows it is ridiculous.
And then we get a song! Just in case we missed the point. Kajal explains to her friend that she isn’t telling Ram Charan who she is because the best part of the love story is always watching the guy look for the girl, and this way she gets to see that part along with the part where they get together.
I almost wish the whole movie had continued this way. Just silly meta-commentary on the standard love story. But, instead, we have to switch to the historical backstory which isn’t nearly as fun.
In the past, Ram Charan was the brave chief of Kajal’s father’s armies. Kajal was desired by her cousin the prince but she and Ram Charan were in love. They almost got together, but then Kajal’s father asked Ram Charan to step back, because he would surely die in battle someday and Kajal would be left alone and miserable and unable to rule in her grief. An interesting argument. Ram Charan abandons her, Kajal is miserable, and meanwhile her jealous cousin has made a deal with the invading Mughals. And it all ends in misery, Kajal and Ram Charan are ambushed by the Mughals, Ram Charan swears he will kill 100 men before he lets them touch her, the delighted chief of the Mughals accepts the challenge. Ram Charan succeeds, but it doesn’t matter, the Mughal chief had already promised to make the evil cousin king. And the evil cousin, in triumph, accidentally kills Kajal, sending her over the side of the cliff. And Ram Charan dives her her, both of them dying together.
Now, there are ALL KINDS of interesting deep philosophical questions in that story. For instance, going back to Kajal’s father’s request for Ram Charan to leave her alone. His argument is that Ram Charan will ultimately die in battle, making Kajal unfit to rule in her grief. It is better for Kajal, and better for the kingdom, if Ram Charan walks away. But Kajal’s argument is that she is in love and that is all that matters. And she’s right. Not in a romantic “love is enough” kind of way, but that first being rejected in love is as damaging as grief. And second, no one can promise a happy ending, all that matters is being true to yourself day by day.
The Mughals are the inevitable force of fate in this film, they will always come, one way or another. Ram Charan will always die, the kingdom will fall, Kajal will not end up ruling after all. And so all that matters is the choices you make and how you live your life, without fear, in the moment. Ram Charan of the past didn’t know that, that is what he needs to learn in his rebirth. But Kajal of the past did, so she has nothing to learn. Which makes her, ultimately, suuuuuuuuper boring.
Kajal has that sparky interesting beginning, but then we get Flashback Kajal who just doesn’t have enough to do. She is flirty and aggressive towards Ram Charan to establish their True Love right away. And then he rejects her and she paints emo pictures of dead doves, and stands there and watches while he fights everyone all by himself in the final battle. She does NOTHING. And just when you think she has reached the peak of doing nothing, we come back to the present where she does less than nothing. Her evil cousin has also been reborn, but has an evil priest that has clued him in on their past lives. He falls in love with Kajal at first sight and, to get her away from Ram Charan, kills her father and frames Ram for it. And Kajal believes it, does a lot of screaming and crying and making bad choices. Until Ram has to kidnap her, for her own good, and knock her out, for her own good. And take her to the place where they both died in the past life until she FINALLY remembers.
It is, to me, the greatest flaw of the film. Ram Charan’s character is confident and aggressive and physical and brave and all of that straight through. The only difference between past and future Ram, and future-Ram-with-memories-of-past, is the determination to pick love at all costs in his new life. But Kajal, the script just doesn’t know what to do with her. In the past, she goes from a spunky princess who insists on declaring her love and learning archery, to a weak willed thing that just stands there and screams. In the future, she goes from this clever amoral interesting heroine, to one who keeps believing the wrong guy and looking tormented by love. It just makes no sense, one way or the other. Her character was clearly written around the needs of the plot. And her character’s weakness reveals the weaknesses of the plot.
It should have this epic feel, Kajal and Ram having learned from the mistakes of the past to make new mistakes in the future (her moving too slow, him too fast, instead of the other way around). But while Ram has a clear directive in both eras, Kajal’s gets fuzzy. And suddenly it’s not clear if they are going through the motions of the past because they have a second chance to set things right, or if there is some kind of great fate controlling it all, and exactly what the moral message is, should we try to fight fate or accept and move with it? Is love more important than all else or just another lever that controls the world? It should be a two lead film, it should be what Bahubali was, the two different approaches to the world of the central pair conflict and cause change and plot movement. But instead we have Ram Charan, all by himself, plowing through life with no partner.
Oh well, it is just his second movie, I guess I can forgive it just this once.
(Especially since he is such a good dancer)