Do you like Kill Bill? What about District B13? Or Ong-Bak Thai Warrior? Or anything Luc Bresson? If so, this is the director for you. If, on the other hand, you like your movies with deep relationships, moral conundrums, and emotions that make you cry, avoid!!!! You will hate him and, worse than that, not understand why I love him.
Humans have base instincts and entertainment can be a safe way to explore and enjoy those instincts. I’ve already talked about this related to romance, the way a woman can read a romance novel about a dominating passionate dangerous lover and explore the parts of herself that are fed by that fantasy without going out into the world and actually finding a dominating passionate dangerous lover. But it’s not just sex and romance that can inspire unwise illogical fantasies, violence does as well. Violence and power and breaking through societal boundaries.
In the 1950s in America, as the American male was turned into a part of a corporation, expected to go to work and come home and raise his family and generally follow all the rules and restrictions of life, cowboy films and TV shows suddenly burst into popularity. It was a safe way to fantasize about being a loner, no family or responsibility, no rules beyond your own conscience, no limits on your life. This is the function of action films in India. The Indian man has more power than the Indian woman, but he is still restricted by the rules that control everyone. Especially the young Indian man, the one who is a duty to his parents, must marry a nice girl picked out by his parents, must have a son, must get a nice respectable job, and so on and so forth.
And so we have the violent fantasy films. Our hero is a cop, or a noble gangster. He has no family, he has woman falling over him, but most of all he has no rules. That’s the fantasy, that you can take your gun and shoot up the world, that you can say a cool one liner and make it happen, that you are operating somehow on a higher level than everyone else and don’t have to obey their petty orders.
I don’t actually find this dangerous. So long as the fantasy is clearly a fantasy, it’s a healthy way to get out these frustrations. If the sexy woman falls in love with you at first sight, if you have limitless bullets and can throw people 20 feet in the air with one punch, that’s unrelated to reality. As much as dreaming about a millionaire who falls in love with you at first sight and takes you away from regular life.
What I find dangerous is when the fantasy is justified. When the hero has a speech about how the “enemies” of the country are out of control and the only solution is extreme action. That is what scares me, the police hero who justifies encounters, the gangster hero who justifies gang wars, the ones who pretend that this isn’t just a fantasy, this is a goal.
In most action movies, the action scenes are there to draw in the audience, but in order for them to pretend it isn’t just a fantasy, it isn’t “wrong”, there is some kind of thin veil of morality placed over the whole thing. A truly moral action film is a good thing, Deewar or Sholay or Pulp Fiction deal with legitimately complex questions of life. But those are the exceptions, more often the morality is an after thought, we see our hero gun down in coldblood dozens of people, and then take 5 minutes to talk about his love for the nation which inspired all of this. I don’t like this for two reasons. First, it makes violence seem justified, not a fantasy but a reality. It leads to folks cheering on police “encounter specialists” and political jingoism. And second, it is disrespectful to true morality, true ethics. You can’t provide an answer to complex questions with a one liner, and you can’t solve societies problems with a gun.
Now, this brings me to Puri Jagganadh! The first Puri Jagganadh movie I saw was Bujjigaddu and I loved it. There were two moments that stood out for me. The first was when our hero seriously says to a bad guy who is trying to hire him “But, it is wrong to kill people for money”. And the second was at the interval when the big bad gangster our hero was trying to kill suddenly embraced him and praised him “I love you!” The Interval came in with a spinning shot ending in a freeze frame and those words appearing on the screen, a ridiculous plot twist handled in a showy way. Puri’s movies have completely amoral heroes, no attempt to pretend they are anything but gangsters and criminals. And that’s okay, because the way he films the movies shows that they are just movies. It’s okay to cheer for our “it’s okay to kill people, just wrong to do it for money” hero because we are in a fantasy world of spectacle and fun, not in reality.
Puri trained under Ram Gopal Verma and the influence is clear. RGV also, especially in his earlier films, liked the funny amoral hero types and the stories that were clearly silly. But Puri takes it further by adding in the crazy angles and over the top action. Partly just because of technical superiority, when RGV was making those silly fun movies in the 90s we didn’t have digital cameras or digital effects available to us. There’s also a long tradition of amoral heroes and twisted universes in the action genre, in Telugu film and beyond, and Puri is part of that tradition. But his technical expertise, combined with his sense of fun in the script, that is different.
What I particularly appreciate about Puri is that his heroines are as imperfect as his heroes. There is no pure good woman that will save him and “teach” him to be better. If the hero is a paid assassin, the heroine likes to film suicides. If the hero is a lowclass gangster fighter, the heroine is the sister of a gangster. These aren’t fragile women hidden away in houses, they are tough and out there in the street just like the hero. And the love stories are true love stories, in their own twisted ways. The hero and heroine fight and make up and flirt, mutually. He isn’t sweeping her off her feet with a grand gesture and she isn’t winning him with her purity and fragility.
Now, I am speaking in general terms. The thing with Puri is that his particular kind of crass extreme violence and amorality can be shifted slightly film to film. I won’t promise that every Puri film is as good as every other one. Pokiri, his biggest hit, is a wonderful movie. But he pulled back at the last minute from the total “amorality” message there. Amma Nanna O Tamila Ammayi has some weird messages about women which, I think, are intended to be read as spoofs of the typical plot (the hero forces the man who “ruined” her to marry his little sister, for instance), but it’s not quite as clear as it would be in later films. Don’t go into a Puri movie expecting him to knock it out of the park every time. He’s made a lot of films, and they aren’t all great.
But in every movie there will be that cynical twist to the hero, there will be those great moments of irrational spectacle in the fight scenes, and there will be the idea that these movies are just movies, nothing more. If that’s enough for you to like a director (it is for me), than I can whole-heartedly recommend him.