The Tamil film Kaththi opens in the middle of a chase outside a prison. We see a group of policemen, apparently firing at will. We see the back of a fleeing convict – the whistles in the theatre tell us it is the film’s star, Vijay. An instant later, this is confirmed with a frontal shot. We see the actor running towards the camera, towards the screen, towards his… fans. It’s a “mass” opening, all right, but it’s nothing compared to the way Chiranjeevi is introduced in the Telugu remake, Khaidi No. 150. When it’s time to reveal his face, the star smiles, the frame freezes. Two slo-mo bullets zing past his ears on either side, leaving behind a Matrix-y wake. The words MEGA STAR appear on screen. In other words, time stands still. The story cannot go on without first acknowledging the star.
Especially when the star is making a comeback after a decade. Like all “mass” films, Khaidi No. 150 is less a piece of cinema, more a conversation between a star and his fans. The number in the title isn’t just about the number on the convict’s uniform. This is Chiranjeevi’s 150th film. He plays two roles. He’s a thief named Kaththi Seenu. (That’s who we see in the early portions.) And he’s a hydrologist named Sankar, who’s helping farmers find water. When asked his name, Sankar replies, “Konidela Siva Sankara Vara Prasad.” That’s Chiranjeevi’s real name. (I’d love to have reported what happens in the next minute, but my ears were still ringing from the screams in the theatre.) And the star reconfigures his signature dance moves. This is less about Chiranjeevi giving a performance than saying “I still got it.” And he has got it. The actor must be the youngest-looking 61-year-old in the movies. There’s not a line on his face. His frame is stockier than that of today’s heroes, but he moves beautifully. When I heard he was paired opposite Kajal Agarwal, who has acted in five films as his son’s heroine, I thought it was creepy. But it doesn’t look that way at all. Or at least, it’s only mildly creepy.
The director, VV Vinayak, has reshaped Kaththi – a star vehicle, plus a social-message movie – into a purer star vehicle. Khaidi No. 150 is less self-important, and therefore more palatable. The story is still the same. And if you’ve seen Kaththi, the emotional highs are still the same – for instance, in the flashback that details Sankar’s work. The bigger social moments are still there, like the visuals that show farmers reduced to cleaning manholes and serving liquor in faraway cities. (As in Kaththi, there is a bit of romanticising of the farmer’s way of life.) But there’s a comedy track with Brahmanandam. And when push comes to shove, Seenu zips away to a foreign location to shake a leg. There’s a song even during the most dramatic part of the film, when Seenu and the farmers step into water conduits serving the city and create a drought-like situation so others can feel their plight. Suddenly, we cut to an insanely catchy Devi Sri Prasad number (Ammadu, let’s do kummudu) that starts with “Yo guys, this is not a mass song, this is the Boss song.” The Boss’s son, Ram Charan, pops in for a few minutes. For five glitzy minutes, those farmers squatting in those pipes are a distant memory. The audience is too busy doing kummudu.
But these interruptions puncture the bloat. We’re constantly being reminded to take things less seriously. Unless we aren’t. Consider the film’s closing portions, the fight at the climax, where the washed-out North Indian-looking villain is killed. (He’s responsible for the suicide of six farmers.) In Kaththi, Vijay merely impales him on a wheel. In this version, Chiranjeevi lifts a plough and sinks its tilling end into the villain’s flanks. The man’s death in Kaththi was merely moral. He did bad things. He had to die. The man’s death in Khaidi No. 150 is mythical. He did bad things to farmers. His death has to come by means of a farming implement. And what about the famous coin fight? In Kaththi, Vijay is found sitting on a pile of goons he’s beaten to a pulp. In Khaidi No. 150, that pile of bodies looks like a small mountain. In Telugu cinema, size clearly matters.
- Kaththi = see here
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