Seems a mean way to start off his birthday, but I feel like Mahesh perhaps needs some help coming down to earth. So this is the most loving thing I can give him. Also, a loving birthday gift for us all, the “Margaret hates this movie” reviews are always fun reads, and you don’t have to worry about being spoiled because you won’t be watching it anyway!
This is an interesting film to think about why it is a hit. Besides the obvious factors like decent action scenes, good songs, big star name, good promotion strategy. But beyond that, it hits into a certain desire on the part of the public, for the perfect unquestioned leader.
This is a desire that is both political and filmi. Indian films are built on stars, we want that big Star turn, the perfect hero striding across the screen as all the girls sigh. And the Indian public (not including myself in this, I’m not Indian public although I am Indian filmi audience) like most citizens that exist within the messiness of democracy sometimes desires that simple all powerful answer to all their problems instead of the confusion of taking personal responsibility.
(just look at the pretty face and don’t think about the importance of individual rights and determinations)
It’s funny, the whole message of this film from the political speeches is “take responsibility, follow the rules, society only prospers when each person does their best”. But if you look through that, the fantasy is a society where no one has to take responsibility. Mahesh Babu tells us how to think and what to think and all we have to do is obey his orders. There is no voting, there is no reasoning on our own behalf, there are no legitimate alternative arguments, nothing. You make one choice, to follow Mahesh, and then you give up all your other choices to him.
And I think maybe that is why this is Mahesh’s first big hit in ages. He isn’t a movie star that is inevitably egotistical in this way. Yes, his films tend to revolve around him being perfect, but in 1:Nenokkoddine and Spyder (of the Mahesh films I have seen) there was something to challenge that perfection, the plot was about more than just Mahesh saying and doing stuff. The audience had to question what was happening, reason things out for themselves a little. Mahesh-the-Star chose to take a back seat to the script and the plot, to let other factors shine and engage the audience.
(The songs were still about Mahesh being perfect, but at least that wasn’t the whole film)
Not in this film. I kept comparing it with even Srimanthadu, the last time Mahesh and Koratala Siva collaborated. In that one, there was some discussion of village improvements, the romance included a (minor) challenge to Mahesh to win over the woman he loved, and there was a lengthy flashback revolving around Mahesh’s father, not himself. All of those elements in this film were clearly present at one point, and then ruthlessly removed. The romance has no challenge to Mahesh’s perfection, he wins over the heroine easily. His father, after being established as “noble”, is never really given a chance to show why he was noble, what he did that was so great, in fact we get an impression of someone who made mistakes that Mahesh has to clean up. This movie is all Mahesh and nothing else.
And maybe that’s what the audience wants. Spyder challenged us to think about the nature of evil, where it comes from, how to defeat it, and how the modern world encourages it to grow. This movie challenges us not to think, to accept the perfection of our hero Mahesh without questioning it, both onscreen and off.
Because Mahesh is so much the center of this film, there isn’t much to discuss besides him. Prakash Raj is predictably wonderful, as is Ajay. I want to particularly call out Brahmaji as Mahesh’s personal assistant and sounding board, who takes what could have been a dull role and really makes it stand out.
All the female actors are superfluous. Not just Kiara Advani as the love interest (playing essentially the same character journey that she had in MS Dhoni from “average girl” to “media hounded one true love of famous man”), but also Aamani and Sithari as Mahesh’s mother and stepmother, and especially Kaumudi Nemani as his sister who, I swear, in one scene looked directly at the camera with a clear expression of “Do you think these idiots will ever give me a real line of dialogue or do will just stand here the entire movie offering tea without being acknowledged?” Our hero has a complex family background, but it is dealt with primarily in terms of his relationship with his father and his younger brother. The two women who could have answered most of his questions about, well, EVERYTHING are written out of the plot and left to stand there silently in the background.
But I guess this is what the audience wants. A fantasy of being the perfect hero who has everything work out perfectly for him and does everything just right. Nothing to break through that fantasy, no other characters to challenge him or true conflicts in the narrative, nothing. I’m glad Mahesh has a hit, he deserves it after taking a risk on Spyder and seeing it fail, but I hope this doesn’t stop him from taking risks. I want him to keep challenging his audience and his fans, making us take responsibility for our own interpretations of a film, our own characters we care about, our own plot points we find important, instead of simply spoonfeeding us the simple message and the simple answer.
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
Whole plot in one paragraph:
Mahesh Babu is the estranged son of a top politician in Andhra Pradesh. He grew up in London living with family friends and now is a professional student at Oxford. His father dies suddenly, he returns home to discover his father’s party is in an uproar, Prakash Raj is his father’s co-party founder but refuses the Chief Minister post, and instead suggests Mahesh. Because his younger brother is still a child, and his stepmother and sister are…..women, I guess? No other reason not to pick them. Mahesh accepts, takes the oath, and then immediately starts instituting massive changes, starting with increasing the fines for traffic charges to the cost of a month’s salary. He also notices Kiara Advani at a bus stop and invites her out for coffee, then is pleased to see she is part of a working group for his reform policies. He is gaining a slight popularity, and at the same time his chief rival’s son is accused of malfeasance, Mahesh orders honest cop Ajay to investigate, but then Ajay is ordered to clear him and stop the investigation by Prakash Raj. Mahesh’s status dips as the public sees this as business as usual, the ruling party stopping an investigation of their rivals because politicians always protect their own. And then Prakash invites Mahesh to have drinks at his place, and reveals that of course Prakash and all the other top politicians from every party are an evil cabal that protects each other. Mahesh is furious and throws one of the politicians through a glass table and storms out. INTERVAL
In the second half, the reform wave continues. Mahesh orders that every district open an English Medium government school, and private schools be investigated for over-priced school fees. And he encourages a local villager to run for representative office against the entrenched family politician, and shows up to personally beat up the gundas who threaten him in order to ensure a fair election. And he declares that from now on funds will be given directly to villages instead of passing through the representatives. And the romance with Kiara advances until he finally sort of proposes. And he spends time with his little brother, helping him get over the trauma of their father’s death (his stepmother and sister-no trauma! Female emotions don’t matter). But it all falls apart when the media gets ahold of his relationship with Kiara, and frames it as immoral….somehow. Because they are dating? Because she works for the government? I am unclear. Mahesh resigns and Prakash is sworn in as the Chief Minister. Mahesh plans to return to London and asks Kiara to come with him, she refuses. He gives an angry press conference declaring that he did nothing wrong, it is the people who have failed by focusing on things that don’t matter. At the same time, he gets a call from a reporter who has evidence indicating Prakash arranged the death of Mahesh’s father, Mahesh brings this to Prakash who kills himself rather than face the public shame. And then, thanks to public outcry (I guess?) he is sworn in as Chief Minister again. And goes over to Kiara’s house where she and her father have retreated in shame to propose, supported by his stepmother and silent sister.
So, I have many many problems with this movie. It’s not the inexplicable romance, or the forgotten sister, or the stepmother with no motivations that make sense, it’s the COMPLETE MISUNDERSTANDING OF THE INDIAN CONSTITUTION!!!!!!!!!!!!!
How could they do this????? A representative democracy is not just legalese, it is the bedrock of the identity of the country, and to present a leader in this way is to ignore that identity. Over and over again, the very soul of the Indian constitution is rejected in favor of a return to pre-colonial rule by decree.
(But he’s so handsome! Who cares if he is a dictator!)
Let’s start with how a Parliamentary Democracy works. The people elect a local representative. That representative goes to the capital to meet with other representatives from through out the state, to come together to solve problems. And to guide them, they reach a consensus on one of their members taking the lead. There is no directly elected national or state representative, each individual district merely elects someone to represent them at a national or state level and trusts them to make decisions on their behalf.
National parties came into being in order to formalize alliances between these various local representatives, to help the public to understand who their local leader will be working with once they reach the center. But, and this is the great advantage, you don’t have to run for office from within one of these parties. And often in order to elect a government, multiple smaller parties must come together in a coalition. Representative democracy lives and breathes on compromise, nothing can be done unless multiple people with multiple different interests all come together. And everyone will always have different interests, because they are elected not by all the people of the country, but by a very particular small area with very particular concerns.
BR Ambedkar, the main architect of the Indian constitution, faught tooth and nail and day and night for this form of democracy. As a Dalit, his greatest concern was to make sure that power was not locked within the villages, because “the love of the intellectual Indian for the village community is of course infinite, if not pathetic….What is a village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow mindedness and communalism?“
(Hilariously, there is a photo of Ambedkar looking down dramatically in our hero’s library. I guess he must just think of him as a guy with cool glasses, because surely anyone who had actually read Ambedkar would not suggest giving money and control back to the villages. That goes for both Mahesh’s character, and the director/writer of this film)
I have to say, my grandmother who grew up a small farm town in America, would have agreed with Ambedkar 1000%. This is what small towns are, everywhere. They are wonderful places where everyone knows everybody. But they are also terrible places where everyone knows everybody. Thus Ambedkar’s desperate battle to keep power out of the hands of the Panchayats and make sure it was balanced by power kept at the center, with local interests represented by elected officials.
It’s more than that, it’s also Nehru’s vision of a united India. The point of the representative government is that no one part of the country, or a state, is any better than any other. Each of them elects a representative, and all of those representatives come together to work out what is best for the state, or country, as a whole. One central leader connecting directly to small village leaders destroys this idea, each village is now isolated from the rest of the country, only relating to one person.
This is the backstory for the system that this film tries to destroy. It has the “infinite, if not pathetic” love for a village that Ambedkar described, a naive belief villagers are somehow purer, wiser, better, and will magically be able to make decisions and carry them out. And that the people in general are better than their representatives and the best thing is to destroy the government systems as much as possible and give total power into few hands.
What really really gets my goat is that Mahesh is a TERRIBLE representative. Let’s start with the end, he doesn’t get to be chief minister any more, so he’s moving back to London. WHAAAAAT????? That is how SHALLOW his love for the people is? If he isn’t in charge, he’s just gonna leave them to their own problems?????
(“Bharat ane nenu…I’m moving back to Lon-don”)
But the biggest part of this is, CHIEF MINISTER ISN’T HIS ONLY JOB!!!! You can only be chief minister if you are elected as a representative, just like everyone else, for a particular district. Remember? The whole “Emergency” thing because Indira Gandhi was still popular nationally but couldn’t win her local election?
So, Mahesh is all about “take personal responsibility! Look after your own people yourself! Village power!” but never bothers to spend one second with his local constituency. And once he loses the Chief Minister post, there isn’t a moment of “oh hey, I can still do good working for my local constituency”. Nope! He is packing up his toys and going away.
And again, this is the basic structure on which modern India is built! The idea that your first responsibility is to represent your local area, then come together with others to plan for the best for your state, or the country as a whole. If you lose a leadership role in the Parliament, it doesn’t end your responsibilities, you still must keep your focus on your local responsibilities. You don’t just come swooping in from London, try to turn India into London, and then leave as soon as the going gets rough without bothering to think about the people you are supposed to be helping. Like, isn’t that what the British did?
I have another problem with this, and the general message of “take personal responsibility! That will solve everything!” that simplistic films, books, public service messages, and politicians constantly try to solve. This is a lesson I learned when I was 6 years old. We had a school assembly about the importance of recycling. And I went home all eager and excited about making a difference and tried to make my family recycle. To which my father sat me down and explained that we would love to recycle, only our town did not have a recycling center, and until one opened, nothing we could do would matter. A single person cannot, in fact, make a difference. Not unless there is a government behind them to support their efforts.
(Well, a single person can make this kind of a difference. And also, by the way, this is the way you make small achievable incremental improvements dramatic and interesting. It is possible to do it, it’s just lazy to go the other way)
This is what always happens. It’s easy to have an assembly and tell 6 year olds that it is their responsibility to make a difference. It’s hard to face the reality that government has the ultimate power, that nothing can happen until you force those in power to make massive systemic changes. And so in this movie, we have the simple lesson of “let’s raise the fines on traffic offenses, and then everyone will obey the law.” A question is raised by the evil politician, what about the software engineer who can’t be late for work and so takes a one-way street the wrong way to take his kids to school and then has to pay a fine that is as much as his monthly salary. Mahesh answers it with the specious argument of “isn’t it better to have a little less money and still be alive instead of being hit by a car while going the wrong way?”
But he doesn’t grapple with the reality of the situation. The problem isn’t the fine, that’s just the most recent problem. The problem is that the kids have to go to school so far from home that their father needs to drop them. That their father’s job is so insecure he can’t risk being late. That there is no public transit option. The solution is to look at housing and schooling issues, at job security in the new tech firms, at improving the public transit system. But those aren’t issues for our software engineer to solve, those are issues that the government has to address. Those are boring hard expensive slow moving changes. Oh, and that’s not even talking about figuring out how to avoid the police taking bribes, how to find enough police to enforce the fines, and so on and so forth. They don’t have the splashy effect of a simple declaration that the power is in our hands to make a change.
(It’s way more fun to go do a song in a village, a village which is not part of your constituency, and bask in the love of the people. Instead of sitting in an office and trying to work out incremental change)
This is what happens over and over again in this film. And it bothers me as, like, a human person who believes in collective action as the only way of solving problems, but also as a film watcher. Because I feel like the film is insulting me, expecting me to buy this ridiculous premise and sit there and applaud and say “yes, truly, he is a great man!” And if I don’t buy into it, well, there isn’t much left to enjoy.
Mirchi, I loved. Mirchi was simple and basic and it knew that. It was dealing with simple over the top ridiculous village disputes. And simple village problems that really could be solved by one person doing the right thing for his one village. One man could know every house in that village, could solve every problem in the village, without needing help or planning or slow moving. And a well-placed punch could solve everything. And at the same time, Mirchi kept its hero on a more human level. He made mistakes, he had real confrontations with his father, in which both of them were in the right and had to learn from each other.
That’s the ultimate narrative problem with this film. Our hero is too perfect. Every problem is solved as soon as he looks at it. There is no tension, no build. Everything just works out. His greatest failure is the loss of his love interest, and that is solved in about 5 minutes.
It’s not just a narrative problem, it’s also a style problem. Mahesh is made to look good at the expense of everything else in the film. His family has no dialogue partly because they are women, but also because they can’t challenge his dominance of every scene. The angelic glow on his face literally throws everyone else into shadow, like the other actors aren’t even lit correctly. He gets all the best lines, which turns conversational scenes into a strange sort of monologue with occasional interruptions. He has no deep relationships with anyone else in the film, including his enemy Prakash, because everyone in the film only exists to reflect his perfection. Which also means Mahesh-the-actor himself is shortchanged, never given a chance for a real dramatic challenge, no internal struggles, no emotional break downs, his biggest speech is directed at TV cameras, which really says it all.
This whole character is directed at the TV cameras, is the kind of person that looks good on the TV news but those he knows in real life have no respect or care for him (another purpose of the Parliementary system, you actually have to be decent enough to make the people who work with you like you before you can have power). Is the kind of person that the audience loves to cheer for and imagine they are him, but would never want to be his love interest, or his mother, or his sister (remember her? He doesn’t. He’s going back to London to live the life of a professional student, who cares what happens to his family). His only relationship is with the people on the other side of the cameras, because that is the only relationship he is capable of maintaining.
I’ve seen a lot of terrible politicians. I grew up in a state capital, I’ve seen the real fall out of these kinds of sweeping populist reforms. It’s not pretty. States go bankrupt, boring necessary programs run out of funding, the handshake deals and trust between politicians from opposing parties are killed and it turns into a vicious battleground in which the needs of the people are lost, and the end result is that millions of lives are destroyed as a side-effect of ill-thought out programs designed for the TV cameras. My state got one of those radical reformer types as a governor back when I was in high school. He ruined the life of my family, and millions of other families across the state. He forced through half-baked simplistic reforms that promptly failed, and he didn’t care, because he got his soundbite for the camera. He was a sociopath, and those closest to him knew it all along (he was eventually arrested partly because of the efforts of his own father-in-law), but they were ignored because he told people they were “insiders”, they were “corrupt”, he was the only person the public could trust. That’s what this film reeks of to me, teaching the audience to swallow the soundbites and simple answers, both in films and in real life, to have total faith in one very good liar.
I can see why this movie is doing so well overseas, because this is the kind of reform NRIs like. They like coming to India for 2 weeks from the perfectly maintained totally different countries where they live, holding forth at dinner parties about how it is all the fault of Indians, if they just acted like non-Indians and like they didn’t live in India, then everything would be fine. Sometimes they try to start NGOs or other initiatives to solve the problems. But then it wears them down, it’s too hard, and they pack up and leave, back to their safe easy unquestioning lives overseas, while those who truly love India, who truly care what happens to it, are stuck still back home, struggling through their lives, patiently trying to exist day to day. NRIs are the ultimate TV camera audience, they only see India through the speeches and the movies and big simple silly answers, they don’t want to deal with the realities of it.
So, yeah, I hate this movie..
Also, Farhan’s song is terrible and for some reason all the back-up dancers look like they are having seizures.