Thursday Telugu: Nenu Naa Rakshisi, Where is Your Moral Line?

As I said when I announced this review, I can’t truly recommend this film as one for you to watch. It is odd and poorly put together. But it had some interesting ideas so I want to talk about it for a bit, even if no one watched it. Oh, and you can read the first non-spoiler half if you want an interesting discussion of film craftsmanship (who wouldn’t?).

There is a concept in art criticism called “Brechtian”. It is sort of similar to “breaking the fourth wall”, but not quite. The idea is that your art work is at such a heightened level of reality that you are telling the audience “you know and I know this is fake”. An example might be Douglas Sirk choosing to make Sandra Dee’s bedroom entirely shockingly pink in Imitation of Life. The message of “this is an innocent young girl” crossed the line from a subtle subconscious visual sign, to “you know and I know that this is just a set in order to convey a message about this imaginary person”. Puri Jagganadh’s movies are Brechtian, in their own way. His action sequences, his character backstories, even the dialogue, crosses the line from “this is something slightly heightened to evoke emotion in the viewers while still feeling real” to “this is something so over the top that the intended message must be an awareness of the artificiality of what is happening”. Where I find this film fascinating is that, on a non-Brechtian level, it does not work at all. In fact, it is shockingly offensive. But if we assume Puri had a Brechtian intent, what is he challenging us, the viewer, to question about ourselves?

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This all sounds very high falutin’. This is not a high falutin’ movie, and Puri is not a high falutin’ director. You don’t have to sit down in a grad school class and discuss semiotics and Brechtian theories for a semester to be able to put them to use. All it really means is, “do I want my audience to be swept into the movie and forget it is fake, or do I want them to be pulled out of the movie so they appreciate my artistry in making something so fake and interesting?” Puri wants you to stand back from his films and go “oh wow, that was a great fight scene! This song is so sexy! That one liner was so great!” He doesn’t want you to come out of the film thinking about the story and the characters, just the craftsmanship.

I just said “he doesn’t want you to think about the story”, and now I am going to contradict myself by pointing out that the story IS part of the craftsmanship. If you come out of the film sobbing over the sad ending, that’s not Brechtian. But if you come out of the film marveling at how perfectly the ending fit with the rest of the story, that is Brechtian. In this film, Puri builds a story and characters that are purposefully challenging to the audience, that are not intended to be sympathetic or “real”, but merely a combination of twists and backstory, and conversations with tropes and previous characters. Part of that challenge is to present us with a hero (Rana Duggabatti) and Heroine (Illeana D’Cruz) who are equally “bad” and ask us how far we are willing to go to accept someone still as a “hero” or “heroine” despite their actions, simply because of how the film presents them.

This is not a perfectly crafted challenge for many reasons. The pure quality of the elements of the film is not great. Rana struggles in his performance (although if you are a fan of tall broadshouldered men leaning against things, this is a great movie!), and Illeana is missing the lightness that makes her best characters shine. Beyond that, the costumes, the sets, the camera work, even the lighting feels cheap. The action scenes, where Puri usually shines, are fine and good enough but not spectacular. All of that though pales in comparison to the biggest issue with the film.

Puri set out to challenge our concepts of “good” and “evil” by having two quirky lead characters that dance right over the line into outright wrong doing. Only, the wrong doing he chose for the heroine (while making an interesting poetic pairing with the hero) is so egregious and so realistic, that (for me and probably for other viewers) it became an impossible distraction from the rest of the plot.

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Our hero Rana Daggubatti is an assassin, for money. No bones about it, he gets a photo from his agent on his phone, sits in wait with a long distance rifle, and shoots. And then asks for money. This works for me, Puri is asking us (as he does in most of his films) to confront how we accept morally grey areas for our heroes by taking it to extremes, both the acts the hero is doing (killing for money) and the way in which he is doing it (unrealistic and super cool long distance shooting). At one point Rana is waiting to shoot someone when he sees that man harassing Illeana, the heroine. He is angry, and moves closer, but can’t do anything because he has to remain in position for his kill. And just then gets a message on his phone showing that the man he is waiting to kill is the harasser. So he in almost one move pulls a mask over his face, grabs Illeana and spins her away from danger, and shoots the guy. It’s a very neat sequence, seeing him do all of that so easily and still make a perfect shot. And it’s a ridiculous fantasy of coolness for our hero. And it makes us think to ourselves “okay, this is a movie, and I am accepting not only that our hero is an assassin, but that he will only defend the woman he loves if it is in line with his assassin job”. That is the kind of sequence that Puri does so well, cool and entertaining and also consciously heightened reality so that we can ignore any moral implications. So fine, our hero is all set. Even more so when we are given a purposefully ridiculous “tragic backstory” that his parents were killed by a gangster he never saw, which is why he took on a job of being a paid assassin killing gangsters. But then there is our heroine.

Illeana’s general concept is really unusual and clever. She appears to be the standard timid “good” heroine who will save our “bad” hero. He first meets her in a cemetery. She dresses in soft flowing dresses and smiles at children. She runs in fear from evil molesters. But then Rana shows up (with an adorable small child in tow) at the restaurant where she works as a waitress. And when the adorable small child adorably reveals Rana’s feelings, Illeana’s reaction is essentially “yeah? So what, why should I care if you have a crush on me?” Very hard, very selfish, very uncaring. Not the magical savior heroine after all. The rest of the film goes on to reveal that she has a darkness equal to Rana’s, that she is not going to trust his love if he claims it came from her smile or her face, that she is going to challenge him to accept the full person. And the audience is challenged as well. If we casually accept this kind of over violent amoral hero, why are we struggling with an over violent amoral heroine?

There are other bits of the film that challenge our perceptions over and over again. That adorable little girl? Killed. And it’s not even a big thing! The film sets her up to be the sweet soul who saves our hero, but then he moves on, and she ends up dying in a 5 second scene that doesn’t even make us feel sad. Why should we feel sad? She was a little girl in a movie, a plot device to move us from a to b, why should we (or the film) waste emotion on her? The hero’s vengeance for his parents, tragic backstory, best friend who is a cop, all of these tropes are neatly inverted by simply being made not to matter. They are there to be checked off a list and then we move on. Heck, even the comedy track, we have a pleasant little subversion where the sexy woman turns out to be the predator and the humorous man the innocent victim, but it’s just there to kill time and doesn’t mean anything. If that was the whole film, a hero and heroine who are bad in separate but equal ways, a film which challenges us to accept that our movie watching truly has no moral judgments involved and the tropes that are in place to “excuse” behavior (adorable child, dead parents, and so on) are really that, just tropes, than this would still not be a good movie. It’s just not that well made. But what tips it over into actual “bad” territory, is the manner in which Puri chooses to make our heroine “bad”.

Illeana is secretly a youtuber who arranges to film suicides. She shows up at a pre-arranged time and place and records what happens without involving herself in it in any way, good or bad. She will not call an ambulance for you, and she will also not encourage you to jump, she will just record. The film tries to make this roughly equal to our hero’s actions in assassinating people. He is killing gangsters who are ultimately bad and would be killed by someone else eventually; she is simply allowing people to die who were already planning to die. He has a tragic backstory that both matches and contradicts what he is doing (he does this to avenge his parents, but his parents died because they didn’t WANT him to be an assassin); she has a tragic backstory (her twin sister killed herself and left a video record, but she was sad when her sister died so why would she wish that on others?). The film even makes an argument that she is doing, if not a good thing, at least a useful thing. The family has an answer, they can see why their loved one chose to die in the video record instead of being left in the darkness. Just as Rana is being useful by ridding the city of gangsters.

The problem is, what Ileana is doing is not actually harmless nor is it fiction. I doubt there are many Olympic level shooters who, because of family tragedy, became super assassins. But the person who facilitates a suicide by not doing anything about it? The websites that give advice and support to those planning to kill themselves? That is a real thing, and it is definitely NOT harmless.

Ileana argues, and the film argues with her, that these people were already planning to die, it was going to happen, even if she had tried she couldn’t have talked them out of it. But that is 100% absolutely completely FALSE. That’s why suicide helplines exist, that is why police officers try to talk folks down when they arrive on scenes, and that is why if you see someone preparing to jump off a bridge, you should stop your car and simply talk to them. It is probably easier to talk someone out of suicide at the moment that they are about to commit suicide than at any other time. I’m not saying talk them out of it forever, but if you can convince the person to come have a cup of coffee with you, than at least you can talk them out of it for today. And who knows what might change tomorrow.

The opposite is also definitely true. Someone will end up killing themselves because, in the smallest way, they feel they are committed to it. They’ve already written the note, they already bought the pills, it seems harder to turn back than to move forward. And schedule a day and time and place to meet someone to videotape the suicide? That is enough to guarantee that it will happen. That’s enough to kill someone in the way calculated to bring the most pain to their loved ones.

When Ileana was revealed to be the person arranging to videotape suicides, I kept waiting for the reveal that she does it because these people deserve to die and it is part of an elaborate plot. Or because she is helping them fake their suicides and escape their sad lives. Or because she is trying to find people thinking of killing themselves in order to talk them out of it. Because the idea of what she was actually doing is so heinous, so grossly wrong, I could not believe any character in a film could do it. It would be like revealing a character to be a rapist, or a pedophile, and expecting us to still sympathize with them.

That reaction was not Puri’s intent. He wanted a simple fun game of two protagonists who are equally bad and breaking ethical rules of society so that the audience is able to break past any illusion of morality in their entertainment. In his mind, and in his expectations for the audience, the idea of suicide does fit with all the speeches rattled off in the film. They will kill themselves anyway, blah blah blah. And now I am doubly depressed. Both by the actions of the fictional character in the film, and by what it reveals about the killing attitude towards suicide in Indian society, the belief that it is not preventable but inevitable. And, in a strange way, possibly noble.

The film keeps going, but once the suicide premise is introduced, none of the rest of it works for me. Rana decides to kill himself and contacts Ileana to record him. He regrets it seconds after stabbing himself and begs her for help, she refuses since she is only there to record (again, a moment that is too real and too wrong for me to ever be able to forgive or understand the character). And then she starts seeing him all around her, at first I thought it was a hallucination born of guilt. That would have been a really interesting movie, one that sets up Ileana as the monster she truly is and how she is slowly brought down by the ghost of one of her victims. But no, turns out Rana survived. He lived because he decided to live for Ileana. She rebuffs his advances, but when the gangsters start chasing him and the police start chasing her, she agrees to go on the run with him to Venice. But tells him in 15 days, she is killing herself.

Now, finally, we hit a part of the film that has the Brechtian tension I want. The idea of a hero pursuing a heroine and trying to persuade her away not from a marriage but from a date with death, that’s a fun little flip. Which makes us question the whole trope of the pursuing hero and fleeing heroine. And there is even a (ridiculous) explanation for her suicide plan built in. She wants to kill herself on the same day that her twin sister killed herself. If the film had started with this and not included the part where she monstrously assists others to die, I would have been all in on this character.

The resolution works too, in the same heightened reality and logic of the film world that it all has. Ileana wants to die because she thinks she is hurting no one by dying, and Rana’s love is not true. But when she starts to die, he starts to stab himself with the same knife and she realizes he does love her and suddenly changes her mind. This is a (exaggerated) version of a real true argument against suicide. Maybe you are planning to die because you think it is better for the world if you aren’t in it, maybe you are planning to die because you think no one will care whether you live or die. All you need is for someone to talk to you and say “I care, I want you in the world”.

The Venice section onward is a movie that works great for me. It also includes Ajay (police officer and Rana’s neighbor) casually showing up in Venice and revealing that gangsters killed his adorable little girl, but the plot has moved on now so that isn’t even that sad. The whole plot tension of Ileana planning to kill herself and Rana trying to stop her through love songs, that’s great. And then the actual overly dramatic suicide sequence, also great. And finally the consciously unbelievable Happy Ending, Ileana released from jail to find Rana waiting and announcing he has bought the cafe where she used to work, and then they embrace. Lack of virtue rewarded, as all amoral characters in Indian films always get happy endings.

I wouldn’t recommend this movie to almost anyone. For a Rana fan, it’s a dull performance. For an action fan, the fight scenes aren’t great. For an Ileana fan, not enough comedy. The songs are boring and unimaginative, the comedy scenes aren’t funny, even the scenery is bad. But there is one small group I can suggest this to. If you are a suicide prevention professional, this is a movie that shows you with shocking vividness the misconceptions you most confront.

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17 thoughts on “Thursday Telugu: Nenu Naa Rakshisi, Where is Your Moral Line?

      • They both look good but I’m not able to cheer for bad characters.
        While reading this review I thought about Rangasthalam. It’s all different movie and director but !LIGHT SPOILER !
        In the end the hero kills somebody and I can understand him, but what I didn’t like is that after committing the murder he has the exit of the hero, with glorious bgm and style, like he did something good and worth praising. And he didn’t. What he did is wrong and he don’t deserve this ending.

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        • Yes! Almost completely different movie, but the same issue with the end of Padmavat. It’s not about what they did, it’s about giving the hero’s edit to a terrible thing.

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        • In the universe of Rangasthalam, Prakash Raj is a high-profile politician who just became a minister which would mean immense power to influence cops and do all sorts of sordid things. The cops are corrupt and the people of Rangasthalam are illiterate to even fight the usury of the money-lenders and the village headman. There is no way Chittibabu & family would have gotten justice through the legal system in such a world. That’s the premise of the movie and that is well-established all throughout and so the ending is justified.

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          • Yes, I understand this, and it’s the tragedy of the movie: the system is ill. You can’t win with criminals/police/ politicians unless you do like them and use the violence. As I said in my previous comment, I understand his actions, but killing somebody doesn’t make him a hero, and there shouldn’t be this victorious exit. For me the movie was like: the world sucks, we can’t do nothing , oh our hero is a killer now, let’s cheer for him.

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  1. I remember watching this film when I was much younger but didn’t really understand the moral implications of it till later on and didn’t really care about the characters either. It’s also sad because soon after this Ileana kind of started fading away

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  2. First off, Rana wasn’t as bad as I remembered him to be in this movie. He wasn’t great but he didn’t make me want to stop watching the movie either.

    I thought this could have been more interesting if Puri just leaned more into the darkness. I thought it should have just ended with both of them dying together.

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    • That would have been interesting, both because the characters would have been “punished”, and because we might have seen both of them regret their suicide when it was too late to go back, giving the ultimate lesson of how fragile the suicide decision really is, no matter the lies Ileana told herself.

      On Thu, Sep 19, 2019 at 5:43 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  3. This movie had so much potential, but I feel like the director was holding back slightly to keep it commercial and easy to understand (not indulge too much into the artsy part of it so that it still brought in money). Or at least that’s what I like to think. This movie was an utter failure at the box office, almost everyone unanimously hated it when it first came out in Andhra. As far as I can remember, the suicide discussion was a prominent part of it with half the people saying it was messed up and the other half not even understanding what the point of having the suicide plotline was.

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    • So glad to know the audiences reaction was “that’s messed up”! Because that was my reaction and I was worried I was lone in it.

      On Thu, Sep 19, 2019 at 10:42 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  4. I watched this movie during my post-Leader-Rana-obsession phase and coming out feeling meh. I felt the movie had some interesting ideas but the director wanted to use them only for shock value and not explore fully-which is understandable considering the target audience. So I was mostly admiring Illeana’s face and figure. The chemistry also seemed very off. Do you think u most Indian filmmakers are subconsciously Brechtian- that they expect the audience to knw that the films they put out are fake and hence not to be taken seriously? And consequently become very defensive to any criticism on the politically incorrect messaging of their movies?

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    • Agree about the chemistry! Somehow they never gelled, and I thought Ileana could have chemistry with everyone (I’ve seen her pull it off with Arjun Kapoor and Akshay Kumar, very different people). Especially bad since the entire second half relied on us enjoying watching them together.

      Interesting point about Brechtian messaging. I don’t think every filmmaker in India is Brechtian, consciously or subconsciously, in fact I think they fall strongly into being anti-Brechtian or Brechtian. The movies that try to drag us in by the emotions are aggressively anti-Brechtian. But I do think the subset that approaches their films in a Brechtian way has a legitimate defense for some (not all) of the criticism of their messages. Like, if someone were to critique Happy New Year because it encourages people to steal, I think we can all agree that is crazy? The film has a heightened reality that means the audience never really believes in the heist or would relate it to their real life. But if someone were to critique Happy New Year because of how Shahrukh talks about Deepika, that is legitimate. Even in this crazy illogical world, he is still positioned as a “good” person and the words he is saying are bad.

      On Fri, Sep 20, 2019 at 1:53 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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