This is an interesting movie, partly because the plot goes here and there and everywhere. I’m gonna spoil it in this post, but I can’t possibly cover every plot twist, so even if you read the spoilers, the movie will still surprise you. If you want to be completely surprised, you can read this no spoilers post instead.
Whole Movie in Two Paragraphs:
The framing device is Rani Lakshmi Bai (Anushka Shetty) encouraging her men before their final battle in 1857 by telling them the story of a man who fought unto death and beyond. In the 1830s, the British arrived in the Telugu speaking region and took advantage of the diffuse way it was ruled, 61 separate chieftains who could easily be individually bought off or defeated. By the 1840s, the British were collecting taxes and ruling directly over the farmers while the chieftains were pensioned off and their power base removed. Narasimha Reddy/Chiranjeevi was the grandson and adopted heir of one of the most powerful chieftains, trained and mentored by the monk warrior Amitabh. He hates that the British have power over them and organizes a grand festival bringing together all 61 chiefs as a first step to consolidating them into a fighting force. He is supported by Jagapathi Babu (you’ve seen him in stuff, he’s great) an older chieftain and Mukesh Rishi as the Muslim chieftain. He is reluctantly supported by Sudeep, another chieftain of the same age and rank who feels a competition with Chiranjeevi but still believes in his goals. Also at the festival is Tamannah, a temple dancer. She sees Chiranjeevi and he sees her and they immediately spark. But when the talk, he challenges her to think about her dancing as a way to serve the people instead of God. After the festival, Chiranjeevi tells his people not to pay taxes this year to the British because of the drought. Sudeep and Mukesh Rishi and the other chieftains follow his lead and also cancel taxes. The British are furious and call in a vicious hatchet man, “Jackson”, to go into the rebellious territory and force taxes. He approaches Chiranjeevi’s farmers first, but Chiranjeevi fights him off. He then goes to the territory of the other chieftains and burns and destroys and terrorizes and takes the taxes by force. Chiranjeevi is busy with his own stuff, he is in love with Tamanah and proposes to her, giving her a Mala necklace from around his neck. But then he returns home to be told by his family that he is already married since childhood and now it is time for his bride to return to his home. He welcomes his bride, Nayanthara, but Tamanah’s heart is broken. She goes to kill herself until Chiranjeevi stops her and instead says she needs to find a reason to live, a purpose to life. Chiranjeevi is still conflicted about his marriage, but happy when Nayanthara announces she is pregnant and focused on organizing a village celebration for her pregnancy, the harvest, and 10 marriages he is sponsoring. But then evil “Jackson” arrives at the festival while Chiranjeevi is doing his prayer ceremony. He demands either the entire harvest, or the right to sleep with all 10 brides. The villagers give him the harvest, but a small boy and 5 farmers stand up to him. He slaughters them all. Chiranjeevi, now furious, declares he will kill Jackson the next day while the villagers witness. He goes to the British barracks and kills Jackson along with all the soldiers who try to stop him, then sends Jackson’s head back to his British overlord. INTERVAL
In the second half, Chiranjeevi goes and asks for support from his fellow chiefs. His own half brother does not support him, and Sudeep laughs at him. The British send a battalion to attack Chiranjeevi’s fort. But his local farmers declare they are with him and will be his army. They defend the fort (while Nayanthara is giving birth, of course). They finally defeat the British thanks to clever use of their defenses, and Chiranjeevi’s awesome fighting abilities, but just then Sudeep and his men arrive, seemingly to support the British. But no! Sudeep turns on the British and slaughters them. Than tells Chiranjeevi he is convinced and will fight with him, although he still resents following Chiranjeevi’s orders. The other chieftains swing around to supporting him as well, and the people follow him too. Chiranjeevi declares that this war will not be fought from forts and castles, but from villages and jungles, because it is a people’s revolt, not a chieftains. He sends Nayanthara to safety and takes to the forest. Vijay Sethupathi tracks him down in the forest from Tamil Nadu, saying that through out south India people are singing songs and telling stories of Chiranjeevi’s revolt and it drove him to join them. Which is how Chiranjeevi learns that Tamannah has found her purpose in life, acting as propaganda for his revolution. Chiranjeevi’s brother betrays him at one point and Nayanthara and his baby son are captured, but he rescues them and then forgives his brother. There are a series of gorilla battles, including one after which they capture a castle and Chiranjeevi orders his family to come celebrate with him. Another Chieftain talks to Sudeep and convinces him that Chiranjeevi is getting too popular and powerful, better to kill him and his entire family now and then make a deal with the British. Sudeep agrees. Only at the last minute it is revealed that Sudeep was a double agent, he would never betray the revolution no matter his personal issues with Chiranjeevi, this was all a plan to bring out the betrayers before the final battle. Heartbreakingly, Jagapathi Babu’s son is one of the traitors, Jagapathi asks Chiranjeevi to kill him as punishment. Meanwhile the British have brought in an enormous shipment of gun powder. Tamannah is captured by them and ends up deciding to incinerate herself and dance through the gun powder to set it off and kill them all. Everyone prepares for a final direct battle with the British. They fight to the death, but when it is over only Jagapathi and Sudeep and Mukesh Rishi and Chiranjeevi are still alive and are on the run. Chiranjeevi has sworn to light the temple fire on a special holy day (as he has his whole life) and will come out of hiding to do it. Jagapathi goes with him, but betrays him and drugs him out of resentment that he killed his son while forgiving his own brother. Chiranjeevi is captured by the British but fights until he is able to light the temple fire before being subdued. And only then does Jagapathi learn that he did not kill his son, instead his son has been in hiding in shame waiting a chance to prove his loyalty, which he finds by breaking the news that “Someone” is planning to betray Chiranjeevi at the temple tonight. Jagapathi kills himself as he realizes the horror of what has happened. Amitabh and Sudeep and the rest are put on a bought to be sent to a remote island, Chiranjeevi is to be hung. He breaks free at the last minute and attacks, even once his head is chopped off he still completes his sword movement to kill his final enemy. Back to Anushka/Laxmi Bai telling this story to her men who are inspired to also fight to the death. And then an end screen as we see faces of the dozens of freedom fights who gave their life for India.
That is a LOT of plot! I tried to cut it down, but I really couldn’t. Which is a sign of how well made this movie is. Each character has their own beginning middle and end to their own story, which informs the overall plot. If I cut the rivalry between Sudeep and Chiranjeevi, than I lose the motivation behind the betrayal and then the twist when it is revealed that Sudeep respects the cause too much to betray it, and finally the motivation behind Jagapathi’s betrayal which leads to Chiranjeevi’s death. If I cut Tamannah’s storyline, than there is no explanation for how Chiranjeevi gained so many supporters from outside his region and how the British were hampered by losing their gunpowder. Nayanthara’s storyline, yeah, that can basically go since it has no impact on anything. But all the rest of it ties up together beautifully.
I also appreciate how this very complicated plot managed to serve many thematic masters. On the one hand there is the idea (that I think of as very South Indian and particularly Telugu) of a traditional village chieftain with strenuous difficult religious responsibilities to his people. It’s not just the usual feudal responsibility to his people, there is a ritual aspect to it that involves personal physical sacrifice (going on fasts, on pilgrimages, performing rituals, etc.). That is where the film starts, these chieftains coming together to perform rituals for the good of the whole region. But in the middle it takes a turn to a conscious decision to get rid of those ancient class markings. Chiranjeevi is special, he is the hero, he is marked by God. But the other chieftains are just men, better or worse than other men. There is no innate inborn superiority to the ruling class, it is what you do with your power that matters. Chiranjeevi declares this war will not be fought from forts, and it will not be fought for personal power, it is a people’s revolt. The film shows a way ahead, a way to keep the ancient idea of the chieftain who sacrifices for and protects his people but update it to the present where that chieftain can come from any part of society and can live with the greater society instead of being separated from them. The plot takes us there step by careful step, from the traditional “blessed princeling” backstory through to the “I will inspire others with my life, the whole country as equals” ending.
The ending of the Freedom Fighter drawings is so important. I don’t remember who all was listed, I know Nehru and Gandhi and Bose and Bhagat Singh were the headliners. And I stayed allllllllllllllll the way through to the end waiting for Ambedkar who never came. I mean, I guess he wasn’t really a “freedom fighter” so much as a “father of the country”. But I like Ambedkar! Why not include him? Anyway, I won’t complain too much because they included so many other people. Which means they included people from every religious and ethnic background, because that is the reality of Indian history, people of every background were involved in the freedom struggle. Woot, inclusive secular society!
But more importantly, seeing all those names and faces gives you a feeling for the grand sweep of history. This was the first rebellion, a people’s revolt that involved a whole region, and it came 100 years before freedom finally arrived. All of these people mattered, all of them came together to make change, it just took a looooooooooooong time.
That’s what this movie is trying to show. The farmers stood up for themselves fearlessly, were the groundswell of the movement. The upperclasses gave up their privilege and risked their lives to fight. Even Tamannah, the temple dancer, had her role in inspiring the people. And Nayanthara, the wife and mother, had her role in living in hiding and enduring. Amitabh was the teacher who passed on his wisdom and advice. And Chiranjeevi was the point of the sword, but that is all he was, the power was from everything else around him. The film takes a hard turn halfway through to “this is not a rebellion, this is a revolution”, and suddenly no one is fighting for Chiranjeevi any more, but instead for Freedom, The People, and The Cause. Every part matters, every person matters. It’s a movie about a Great Man that rejects the Great Man view of history in a strange logical turn about.
Resisting the Great Man view of history should be easy, because real legitimate historians have avoided that way of viewing history for half a century. History is not about one man changing things, it is about slow forces causing shifts, it is about each individual person with their own motivations making their own choices. This movie starts with an explanation of the chieftain system of governship and how that could be exploited by the British, not with the magical birth of the hero (although that comes soon enough). And we see and have a clear explanation of the motivations behind the common farmer, the other chieftains, and the people who think it is none of their business (like Tamannah) but eventually are radicalized. This is all very simple and straight-forward, and yet it feels like a great breath of fresh air because of how TERRIBLE these kind of films are usually.
Bharat Ane Nenu is about one man essentially making himself a dictator and solving all problems by decree, no effort or need to understand the underlying issues. Manikarnika brutally slaughtered the backstory and motivation of all characters besides the heroine in order to make her the center of the story, and simplified the historical issues to “Hindu Nationalism Good, British Bad”. Rudhramadevi had truly terrible special effects and action sequences, to the point of distracting from the rest of the film. A movie that has visuals to match the sweep of the story, some sense of the larger historical context, and an excellent cast with interesting characters feels like something worthy of applause. And you know, it is! Based on what they are competing with, the filmmakers could have easily put out a far worse product, but instead they tried and came up with some original and high quality and intelligent.