Friday Classics: Junglee, a Very Light Movie About Heavy Animals

Supposed to write this on Friday, but then I was traveling all day, so oh well. I’ll write it today instead while the baby naps. Shouldn’t take long, this is the lightest film in the world.

The most interesting thing about this movie is that it was directed by Chuck Russell. If you follow American film, Chuck Russell is someone whose name brings up visions of B-grade action films and no controversies. That second part is kind of remarkable. The Hollywood system is built to encourage awful men to be directors. That doesn’t mean all directors are awful men, but if you are an awful man (anger issues, egotistical, incapable of working with others, sadistic tendencies), “Hollywood Director” might be a good career path for you along with “found your own not for profit” and “work in the family business”.

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The Hollywood system runs on the theory that the director is the one and only King on a film set. And it runs on the theory that directors are hired to direct movies that were put together by agents and producers. What this means is, a director has to do none of the initial networking and selling and making nice to make a movie happen, they are just brought in and dropped into the film when it is time to yell at everyone and control the set. What this is supposed to mean is that the director can keep his eye firmly on making the best possible end product, no concerns about what the money people want or what will sell to the audience (that is the producer’s job) and no concerns about keeping the stars and other creatives happy (that is the agent’s job). In the best possible version, this also means that the director keeps the set happy, that is, he makes sure the cameraman and lighting man and the rest of the crew are as respected and content as the actors, because they are all equally important to the smooth running of the set and they are all under his protection. People don’t get famous or powerful for doing the actual job of “director” well, because 90% of the job is stuff no one sees onscreen.

For my film class on production, I read a memoir by a woman who worked in 90s Hollywood in a whole bunch of behind the scenes roles. She talked about one film she was working on as the line producer (meaning she was the one on set helping coordinate and seeing what was happening) that had an absolutely terrible director. He alienated everyone, lost respect of the crew, and the film was over budget and never going to happen. She ended up getting studio approval to fire him which NEVER happens. And then she brought in the director she wanted, who immediately got things running smoothly. He talked to everyone and brought them back on board, he encouraged and listened to the artistic visions of people around him, and with his leadership the film ended up being made mostly on budget and on time after all, and even turning a small profit. It also got truly horrific reviews, because no matter what it was never going to be a good movie. I just looked up that director, he has never won or even been nominated for an Oscar, his films are not part of any “top ten” list, but he worked as a director for 40 years and got most of his jobs by personal recommendation.

I suspect that Chuck Russell is this kind of director. Which is why he can make a film in India without it feeling like a “Hollywood” film, and without creating any waves. If a director sees their job as showing up on set and making everyone else feel safe and happy and heard, then it is the same job no matter where you are. The only possible conflict in the Indian context is that the star is going to be trying to do the same job as you, because in India often it is the star who is steering the ship and keeping everyone on set happy and calm in the way a director should in America. But is that even a conflict? For example, on the set of De De Pyaar De a male make-up artist was harassing one of the female crew. She went to Ajay (the star) who went to Luv Ranjan (the director) and the two of them made a joint decision to fire the artist and make sure he understood what was wrong in his behavior. It’s a problem if she went to Ajay and he didn’t talk to Luv, or vice versa, but so long as star and director are equally respectful of each other, no issues.

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Director-star, King Elephant-Human Friend, same dynamic

And that brings me to our “star” of Junglee, Vidyut Jammwal. Vidyut is a martial artist first and foremost. He makes low budget high profit action films. This is already a film genre that asks for control by the director, and respect of the star’s wishes. Action sequences are dangerous, and the star who is actually doing them needs to trust someone else to have the full vision in mind so they aren’t distracted. At the same time, if your star comes to you and says “I can’t do that movie, in the moment it doesn’t feel safe”, you absolutely must listen to them. Vidyut is 39 (looks way younger, thank you martial arts!) and started as a model, then became the “bad guy who can do the cool fight scenes” in a series of movies, before finally getting his first leading part as “guy who can’t act great but does really amazing fight scenes” in Commando in 2014. And now he’s got a nice little career going, alternating playing the bad guy in bigger films with other stars and playing the good guy in little films based around him.

This movie took a very very good martial artist as the lead, a solid experienced director who runs an organized set and listens to people around him, and added on an “Indian” plot about saving an elephant sanctuary, and the end result is a movie that is truly beyond borders. Action movie plotting and style, at its very basics, is the same world wide more than any other genre because it is completely visual and completely physical. You have a good guy and a bad guy, and then they fight. We don’t have to deal with social differences around romance, or how to show an internal emotion, or any of that. This movie uses a Hindu ritual for the “happy feelings people together” scene, and uses an Indian martial art for the “backstory on how the hero can fight so well” stuff, but that is it in terms of culturally specific content. Everything else is universal. I could honestly show this film to anyone from anywhere and know they would understand all of it. They may not love it, it’s not necessarily the greatest film in the world, but it is universal.

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I half-watched this movie while doing something else the first time around, and then I fast-forwarded it to remind myself of the plot before writing this review, and I am surprised by how much I remembered! It is a nice tidy narrative with no extra moving parts. Well, besides the two heroines, but that’s just fun eye candy.

Vidyut grew up in Kerala in an elephant sanctuary run by his father Thalaivasal Vijay with his childhood friends Pooja Sawant and Akshay Oberoi learning martial arts from Makarand Deshpande. His mother died and he ran away from home, now he is a veterinarian in Bombay returning home for the first time along with cute glasses wearing reporter Asha Bhat, to find Pooja grown up and beautiful and dating game warden Akshay. Evil poacher Atul Kulkarni is after their elephants, one night he goes after the king elephant for his tusks and kills Thalaivasal for getting in his way. Vidyut is now very angry and determined to stop the poaching, but is wrongfully arrested on suspicion of being the poacher himself. He escapes into the jungle where he finds the elephant tusks hidden in a childhood hiding place and realizes Akshay must be working with the poachers. He and Akshay fight, then the poachers show up and Akshay tries to save Vidyut and dies. With the help of Pooja, Asha (who videotapes the whole thing), and Makarand who returns in fighting form, Vidyut finally defeats the poachers. At the end, the elephant sanctuary celebrates the birth of a new elephant with Vidyut and Asha and Pooja all there.

There’s more “plot” in terms of how exactly they trap the poachers and stuff, but really that is just logistics. The actual story is the return of the prodigal son, the city girl and country girl, the death of the father, betrayal and redemption of the old friend, vengeance, and happy ending. Universal, right? When I write it out like that?

The little Indian touches are first in the choice of using elephants, and second on the choice of setting it in Kerala where elephants have a special place AND there is a special martial art form (which is actually the form Vidyut is trained in). Otherwise, it is truly universal in the best way. Like, the heroines. Sure they are both sexualized a bit in their costumes and styling, but then so is everyone. Asha always wears glasses because she is “smart” and also short-shorts so we can see her legs, but on the other hand Akshay Oboroi almost always wears a super super super tight uniform so we remember he is the game warden and also so he looks sexy. The concept of “traditional village girl versus city girl” is universal, and isn’t really a judgement on either of them. Pooja uses a slingshot and casually rides around on elephants, and also has her hair down and wears pretty cotton tops. Asha can’t ride an elephant or use a slingshot and wears t-shirts, but she is smart enough to hide and videotape stuff when she sees bad things going down. It’s not deep, but it’s also not insulting. And the same simple “tough country girl who has skills” versus “city girl who can learn and use her head” characterization would work in an action film made anywhere. Just as the “my childhood friend is betraying me! And now he dies redeeming himself!” twist is a universal one for action movies. Or the “I was estranged from my father but I still want to avenge his death” twist. And so on and so forth.

I guess what I am saying is, if you enjoy watching solid but not spectacular action movies, watch this movie. If you like watching “Indian” movies in terms of style, story, emotions, and so on, this one won’t be anything special for you. It’s not Indian, it’s just a decent movie.

Oh, and Vidyut’s abs are INSANE!!!!!

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4 thoughts on “Friday Classics: Junglee, a Very Light Movie About Heavy Animals

    • It’s like Alan Rickman in Die Hard. If you are making an action movie, you need an actor-actor as either the hero or the villain. This time they went for the actor-actor as the villain and let the hero be the Action Abs Man.

      On Sun, Jan 19, 2020 at 12:18 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      Liked by 1 person

  1. I think I would like to watch it for the elephants and the acting with elephants. Unfortunately, it isn’t on einthusan.
    (Hi hi, evil Kulkarni is always a treat to watch.)

    Like

    • The elephants are fun in this and they do a good job using them. But you are right, looks like it is only on HotStar.

      On Sun, Jan 19, 2020 at 1:31 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      Like

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