Well, this was fun! A movie I picked because a) it had Nagarjuna and b) it had the shortest running time of all the Nagarjuna movies on Hotstar. But it turned out to be a little more than just short and Naga-riffic.
There are a lot of deep and serious and over-wrought Indian films about the independence movement. This is not one of them. This is an Indian film that uses the independence movement as a set-up for its hero and the heroic story it wants to tell without a lot of concern for deep thoughts. It draws history with broad strokes and bright colors.
Nothing wrong with that! History is always fake, if it was real it would be called “present” not “History”. So if you accept that any historical film will, inevitably, fail to capture the reality of history, then why not go all the way in the other direction and make it the fun bright colors of history? Especially if you want the audience to see a clear unmistakable historical message, British=Abusive Landlords.
(Kill the Rich!)
There’s another kind of fun equivalency in this film, Singing=Revolutionary act. Which is true, if we expand singing to mean words of all kinds. Both our Nagarjuna Hero and our little girl heroine use their voice to inspire others into action, and do it so successfully that their enemies fear the threat of their voice. You don’t have to be the wild violent village people of this film in order to destroy the parasitic sadistic wealthy, you can simply raise your voice and inspire others to understand and use their own power.
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We start with Sneha who, according to wikipedia, is a talented and successful actress. I wouldn’t know that from her performance in this film. I honestly thought she was mute since she spends all but one scene sniffling and whimpering and gasping with no dialogue. Anyway, she is sniffling and whimpering and gasping as she totters along carrying her “newborn” (looks about 4-5 months old) daughter. They are being chased by men on horseback, she runs and runs, and then the horseback men strike her down with a spear and roll her over to reveal she was carrying a bundle of clothe, she safely hid her daughter. The daughter is then discovered by a humble fisherman who raises her and loves her and she becomes a charming little girl of the village.
This is our hero, this little girl. The posters and everything put Nagarjuna front and center and sell it as a hero action film, but really it is about this little girl. She is cute and sweet and really loves her village. And when she sits by the sacred basil plant that is kept up in memory of Nagarjuna, she hears a voice singing her a song. She starts singing the song and the whole village picks it up. Evil Shweta Menon HATES this. And she hates it even more when her daughter’s music teacher (Nassar) tells Baby Annie (the little girl) that she has a better voice than the daughter. Shweta beats Baby Annie and for the first time notices her.
Now, isn’t this interesting! Baby Annie is essentially hidden in plain sight. She is the spirit of rebellion and so on and so forth, but as a little girl, she fades into the background and is unnoticed in the village. Until she starts to get old enough and her true spirit begins to appear.
There’s a pretty obvious metaphor here. In the early bad days, the immediately post-British days, we needed the “male” energy, the anger and violence which Nagarjuna inspired in the people around him. But now, post-Independence, there is a need for a gentler energy, for a little girl who will inspire people to build and dream, to sing and be hopeful.
Of course, this fragile little hope for the future has a pretty hard time of it without her “male” energy’s violence to protect her. She is beaten, goes on the run, is captured, has her adopted grandfather who raised her killed in her defense, is rescued, and then sent off all by herself to go to Delhi and meet Nehru to ask for help. The whole time she alternates between happy singing and smiling, and whimpering in terror. The one time I found her very impressive was when a nogoodnik steals her bag and she runs after him, despite a broken sandel, and then in a great burst of energy drops down on him and holds on around his neck until he drops the bag. He still gathers up all her fallen wealth (the bangles and so on donated by the village women), but she gets the thing she truly desired, the clothe full of soil from her village. I greatly enjoyed this moment, singing her as a fiery powerful person instead of the little nobly suffering one. And mostly we don’t get the fiery anger because she is a little girl and girls aren’t supposed to be angry. But also because it is a different time, she is trying to bring the village into a place of peace through love, instead of freedom through violence.
The nice thing is, the end of the end of the film says that Nagarjuna’s violent male strength can live on and support his daughter and his people without the need for further violence, while he could not survive without the love and gentleness and promise she provides.
See, Baby Annie is captured once and for all just before she will have a chance to sing for Nehru. But in captivity, Nassar tells her the full story of her father. Nagarjuna was a freedom fighter who defeated the British and then returned to his village (after saying good-bye to his comrades, a Sikh, a Muslim, and a Brahmin in some sort of Village People like grouping). But he discovered that the British may have left, and yet the villages were still not free.
This is a real thing that happened, two real things actually. First that the Hyderabadi government resisted handing over power to Independent India, leaving the Telugu speaking regions in a bit of an unstable position in the early Independence years. And second that, post-independence, there were a fair number of village uprisings as abusive landlords were over turned and the land redistributed by force, and land reforms.
This movie adds a bit of a shift to it, making Nagarjuna the returning hero who has fought the good fight and won out against the greater power (in a fantastic opening section, he defeats the British by causing a their whole big stone building to fall down on top of them) only to discover that the perfect homeland he dreamed off is still suffering. This is the end of the Lord of the Rings cycle, Frodo and the other hobbits return home to discover their village has been overrun, they easily fight off the attackers and gain the praise of their neighbors, but for them it is just a tiny skurmish. This is what happens, you go off into the great wide world, see and do terrible things, and then return to your little village and have your eyes opened to the wrongs that are there, and how easy it is to solve them compared to the wrongs you have previously seen. And so Nagarjuna, the hero of the Independence movement (aggressively name-checking Bhagat Singh as his inspiration) returns home and immediately inspires a villager revolt.
He doesn’t actually do anything himself, he just sings a song and fearlessly plays a drum and inspires them to save themselves. Up to and including Sneha, who is dragged off by the landlord until she picks up the song, breaks free and stabs him. Nagarjuna isn’t there to “save” them, he is there to teach them that they could always save themselves.
Until of course he can’t. The evil cadre of landlords, half Muslim and half Hindu (the Evil Village People), work together and keep punishing the village. Until the bring in hundreds of hired fightings, Nagarjuna promises to hold them all off himself, his 3 friends mysteriously re-appear just in time for the final battle (did the multi-cultural religions bat signal go up?), and all die triumphantly around the Indian flag. A not at all subtle statement that fighting for India doesn’t just mean throwing out the British, but fighting for a better India for all, even if that means stabbing a few corrupt landlords.
Which brings us back to the present day. Where Baby Annie finally breaks free and sings for Nehru, a song which begins with the happy love for motherland she always inspires, and then shifts to anger and memory of what Nagarjuna went through, as she witnesses all his actions. The hope and love of the little girl, now hardened and strengthened and further inspired by the sacrifices that brought her there. Nehru, of course, is touched. The village is saved, and a statue of Nagarjuna goes up just in time for Baby Annie to embrace it and feel it is her father holding her.
There’s a fair number of other themes here, for instance the use of objects as representations (Nagarjuna dresses and holds a doll as though it is his daughter since he knows he will not live to see her born, Baby Annie holds her father’s statue), and the empowering of women (Shweta Menon as the heartless villain, not a woman scorned or anything lame like that, she just hates poor people in the best landlord tradition), and the weakening of woman (seriously, I thought Sneha was playing a mute. I can’t stand female roles where they gasp and whimper the whole time. Is it supposed to be sexy or something?). But mostly it is about a hopeful loving little girl and her father who sacrificed his life in violence in order to let her live in hope and love.
(This is the first time I was pretty sure she wasn’t a mute)