I watched Magadheera last night with a baby, her Grandpa, and her Mom. And we all agreed that Ram Charan’s hair is the best part of the movie. Soooooooooo pretty. Well, I think the baby agreed, she said something like “ba ba ba BAAAA!” when I asked her, and I am taking that for agreement.
One ingredient that is semi-lacking is our hero. Ram Charan is fine, but he is definitely no Prabhas in terms of acting. And why should he be? This is 2/3rds a standard modern Telugu film, all he has to do is react to Brahmachandran and wear strange designer t-shirts and pretend to be in love with the heroine. There’s no depth to his performance, but then there’s no depth to the character either.
The real flawed character though is Kajal Aggarwal. Urrrrggggh, she is so FRUSTRATING!!!! There is the start of some interesting stuff, but then her modern day character seems almost psychotic in her sudden motivation changes (“I hate Ram Charan!” “I love Ram Charan and would die for him!” “I hate him again!” “I both hate him and would die for him simultaneously!”). And of course her past character starts out as Awesome Warrior Independent Princess, and then changes to “Kajal! MOVE! Do ANYTHING!!!!” by the end. Retroactively, I am not blaming Rajamouli for this. After seeing what he did with both heroines in Bahubali 1 and 2, clearly he likes the strong independent interesting woman, just didn’t have the plot space for her in this film.
But then there is the fun stuff. The villain is excellent, as is the Noble Muslim/Christian ally of the hero (the Pran role, to put it in Hindi terms). And the special effects are shakey, but ambitious, in that typical Rajamouli way. And just the whole story is so crazy, and so fun, that it is hard to resist. And yet at the same time, firmly grounded in Indian film traditions.
Oh, and the soundtrack is surprisingly good! It’s not just the visuals that make the songs, they are catchy and fun. And if you have the visuals, you can appreciate that Ram Charan is very very good at dancing.
All of that is interesting, but when showing it to other people, I find myself wishing there was less of a Chiranjeevi cameo, less of a self-reflective commentary on stalker-romances, less Brahmachandran, less sexy cleavage shots, and just generally less feeling like this is just another Telugu film instead of something special and beyond the films, like Eega was, like Bahubali was. Those Telugu bits are fun if you are aware of what the industry is like and where they are coming from, but they are deadly dull when trying to show it to new people.
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Like I said, the plot is kind of classic Indian film. Our hero meets our heroine and immediately falls for her and gets flashes of his past life. They fall in love in the present, but an evil rival shows up also from the past life. In the second half, we get a full flashback of the past life and its tragic ending. And then come back to the present just in time for the final defeat and happy ending.
Very familiar plot. Hamesha, Karz, Om Shanti Om, and on and on. There’s some standard fun twists, usually one part of the couple remembers first and has to convince the other in some variation. And there’s the audience being aware of the danger from the evil reincarnated person and the characters being unaware. Often the villain is the first person to understand what is happening. Or at least, finds out fairly soon so the threat level is accelerated.
Rajamouli doesn’t really throw out the guidebook on how he does his plot. Just slight fun changes. One of the best is having the hero recognize the heroine through touch, not sight. Meaning he is passionately in love thanks to their past life connection, but doesn’t actually know what she looks like, just has to track down the woman he touched before. “Love at first touch” is a fun plot device to play with for a filmmaker, and the reincarnation excuse makes it kind of narratively viable in a way it wouldn’t be otherwise.
Mostly though, he takes a familiar template and turns it around and adds to it. In that way, this film is very similar to Bahubali. Like Bahubali taking the Mahabharat and moving it around to give us new philosophical questions, Rajamouli took the familiar reincarnation romance and made us think about what reincarnation really means, how this story can be turned around, what fate is, and destiny and love.
That’s where I found the movie really interesting. It starts out seeming simple, but then if you kind of look at it sidewise, take it “seriously” instead of just as a silly movie about reincarnation, then it has some deep statements. In the past, Ram Charan was a warrior and Kajal was a Princess. Kajal was in love with him and flirted shamelessly, he flirted a little bit back to her, but in the end he bowed his head to her father and the greater good and walked away from her. And they both died.
Her father’s argument was that Ram Charan had a dangerous life, if Kajal married him she might end up a widow. Ram Charan refused to admit his love because her father argued for a short term heartbreak to serve the greater good. But they lived in dangerous times and there were no guarantees. Kajal died, and Ram Charan never told her he loved her, and that was the regret that brought him back to life again, determined to break all the rules of society, do whatever it took, but not let her go again.
There is a direct comparison when, in the present, Kajal’s father again tries to separate them. Ram Charan flashes back to the past for a second and then grabs her father and threatens to kill him if he tries to keep them apart. This is before the audience has seen the past, and it would be easy to forget that moment, or never really place it in context. But what we learn is that flash of the past was not of Kajal’s father threatening Ram Charan, or harming him. It was of him giving a reasonable patriarchal argument about what was “best” for Kajal, and convincing Ram Charan that love was not the most important. That is what he is reacting to in the present, the anger at himself and at the patriarchy which convinced him to be “reasonable” and walk away. In the present, he will not be reasonable and he will not walk away, he will confront the patriarchy instead.
Kajal has an interesting statement about present versus past as well. In the past, she was a Princess, powerful and raised to rule. And so she fearlessly goes after the man she loves and what she wants. But in the present, she is an “average” girl, and has learned to be cautious with men, resists admitting who she is to Ram Charan, and generally distrusts him and her own judgement. Yes, there is still that spark and confidence, but it is not the same as the princess who fearlessly stood up to threat and declared her love. The “free” world of the modern woman isn’t quite as free and modern as it seems, doesn’t encourage as much self-confidence as she had in the past.
And then there are the powerful men. Dev Gill, the villain, and Sarath Babu, Kajal’s father, have changed almost not at all, and learned nothing, life time to life time. Sarath Babu is still focused on his own goals and his own life and thinks he can decide what is best for his daughter. We see him in the past consulting with an astrologer, and in the present with a lawyer, and in both cases the information is kept from his daughter. The change is that, in the present, he actually listens when his daughter finally tells him what she wants, and agrees to her marriage to Ram Charan. It’s a small change, but at least he has learned something.
But Dev hasn’t learned or changed at all. His catchphrase is even still the same!!!! It’s a statement on power and who has it, along with a statement on reincarnation and learning from past lives. Kajal had power in the past but was shocked when she lost it (Ram Charan and her father taking away her choice). In the present, she is more cautious where she puts her trust, and more cautious in general as she has less power. Ram Charan in the past had no power, a man born to serve. In the present, he will never give up his power, to Kajal’s father, to Brahmachandran, to Dev Gill, to anyone. And Kajal and Ram Charan are able to find a happier ending in this new life, because they have learned and changed, while Dev Gill has learned nothing and therefore is doomed in the present just as he was in the past.
The character that shows this the most is Srihari. In the past, he was the Noble Muslim. A fierce warrior, but a brave and fair man. He was able to treat Ram Charan with respect in a way he never really was by his own allies (a subtle statement on caste and Hinduism and Islam as well, it is the successful Muslim warrior who is able to see past Ram Charan’s caste and to his real value). But ultimately, he was not free, he was bound by his promises to the wrong people. He allied with Dev in order to defeat Kajal’s kingdom, and therefore he was forced to support the unworthy Dev against the more worthy Ram Charan. In the present, he has been brought to a far lower level of society and power, but has benefited by being able to choose his own allies based purely on their virtue, not on a greater goal. Because he has no greater goal, he has been freed from that. He is punished for his sins, by being sent to a low level of society and disallowed from marriage (as punishment for separating true lovers) in his new life. But he is rewarded for his virtues by being reborn happy and free to an sunny pleasant life. He is different, but the same. And he has learned from the past, instead of separating Ram Charan and Kajal, he now does whatever he can to bring them together.
So, yes, this is a very silly movie with a lot of silly things in it. But on the other hand, it also has some really interesting things to say about learning from mistakes and second chances.