If Chimbu Deven’s brief was to create a colourful diversion for undemanding children, then Puli, starring Vijay, must be counted as some sort of success. Through his career, the director has pitched his tent a couple of feet away from the mainstream – here too, his quirky inventiveness is charming. It isn’t just that an interlude in this Chosen One Saves The World saga features little people. It’s that the little women wear peanut-shell blouses. A touch like that shows you this isn’t a completely lazy movie. Or how about that man with a moustache? There’s no joke there – but imagine the moustache on his head. There’s a wisdom-spewing tortoise. A chatty bird. A frog that scratches its head while in deep thought. There’s strength-giving magic potion, like in the Asterix comics. The visual effects are nicely done, and cinematographer Natarajan Subramaniam opts for a keep-the-kids-happy palette – everywhere you turn, there’s rich colour. Even the contact lenses the villain (Sudeep) wears are a piercing blue.
Just how much of a children’s film Puli ultimately is may be up for debate in some quarters. There’s a running gag about a man’s frustration at not consummating his marriage. Our cinema, clearly, is incomplete without wedding-night jokes. More disturbingly, there’s a lot of sword-fighting, a lot of torsos being impaled – at one point, a little girl’s throat is slit. The audience watches numbly. (The censors too, apparently. The film is certified ‘U.’) I wouldn’t be making too big a point about this in what’s essentially a fun fantasy, but the nation seems to have gone mad – lynch mobs seem to be sprouting everywhere, and I wonder how much of this is the result of our becoming desensitised to violence through cinema.
Oh well, back to regular programming. The scale of Puli inevitably brings Baahubali to mind, but this isn’t as intense. The film is tailored to fit its star’s comic-hero persona. He makes the usual noises that can be read as declarations of political intent – “Aala porandhavan illa… makkalukkaaga vaazha porandhavan” – but consider his first fight sequence. After a lot of chasing, he ends up clinging to the enemy’s legs, grinning, asking for mercy. I kept thinking it was a ruse, that he’d soon snarl and unleash his inner Rana Daggubati, but that’s really the end of the scene.
But there was more to Baahubali, a sustained commitment to storytelling, a belief that even fantasy needs some kind of internal logic – and that’s missing in Puli. The narrative is lax and Chimbu Deven doesn’t build up to things so much as let them occur like an afterthought. You think the hero’s efforts to find the imprisoned heroine will take some doing – but he just stumbles upon her in a secret tower. The man who tells the hero about his past (there’s a flashback, plus a laughable wig) is introduced just for that scene – he isn’t a character, he’s a PowerPoint slide in disguise. At this juncture, we also learn that the hero has been consuming magic leaves from childhood. Wouldn’t it have been more fun to show him munching on those leaves – in other words, have the leaves make an appearance earlier on, like a character – and then tell us what their powers are?
Put differently, Chimbu Deven has forgotten to make a movie for adults. His inventions surprise us, delight us for a second or two – and then we’re back to the turgid story. The first half, especially, is a drag – generic comedy (Thambi Ramiah), generic romance (Shruti Haasan, who’s sure to snag a Best Supporting Belly Button nomination at next year’s award functions), a generic second heroine (Hansika Motwani), and the kind of generic background score that composers think scream ‘epic’. (You know the deep wail, the chorus that sounds as if it was belched out by a thousand Viking women during childbirth.)
Things get a little better in the second half, thanks to Sridevi’s evil queen – she gets a better ‘hero entry scene’ than the hero himself. There’s some fun watching this diva play another diva – though not nearly as much fun as the fact that her race is called Vedhaalam, which is the name of… Ajith’s upcoming movie. (Coincidence? A poke in the rib between professional rivals?) Another extra-textual fun fact: In a reversal of the Tamil-cinema tradition of the hero’s mother being played by an actress who once starred opposite him, as heroine, Sridevi’s father here is played by her Pagalil Oru Iravu hero, Vijayakumar. Say what you will about Puli, it does strike a small blow for gender equality.
- Puli = tiger
- Baahubali = see here
- “Aala porandhavan illa… makkalukkaaga vaazha porandhavan” = I was born not to rule over people but to serve them.
An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2015 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.