Pushpa: The Rise — Part 1 Movie Review: Allu Arjun is all swagger in a film that falters
A terrific central performance from Allu Arjun and plenty of sharp dialogues, and yet, Pushpa: The Rise – Part 1 should have done better
Let it be said clearly and loudly that the foremost attraction in Pushpa: The Rise – Part 1 is the characterisation of the protagonist, Pushpa, and in equal parts, the performance of Allu Arjun that’s so casually charismatic. Come to think of it, it’s quite strange that we can’t keep our eyes off Pushparaj. The man has unkempt hair, a peculiar manner of walking with the shoulders rather lopsided, clothes that seem barely washed, and when this man does speak, he aims to sting. And yet, Allu Arjun has internalised this character and plays it with such effortless style that it’s impossible not to buy him, quirks and all. It’s strange that the man radiating this charm is a violent, selfish brute who believes in shortcuts. When he seeks to escape from the police, he bribes them. When he seeks a woman, well, he bribes her.
Director Sukumar tries to make him accessible by showing him as an underdog at the very bottom of a vicious power hierarchy. He also, rather manipulatively, establishes that Pushpa is an illegitimate child, chiefly, it seems, to win our support. But he perhaps doesn’t realise that we are already invested in Pushpa, largely on account of terrific dialogues, delivered with the rough bite of the Chittoor dialect. Watch when he willingly participates in a dangerous mission, and someone warns him that there’s a good chance he may not return home that evening. Pushpa climbs into the truck, but not before saying, “I have no plans for the evening anyway.” It’s to Sukumar’s credit that this character never strays from this casual arrogance that defines him.
Cast: Allu Arjun, Fahadh Faasil, Sunil, Rao Ramesh, Rashmika
Also to Sukumar’s credit is how he manages to pull off the unenviable job of making a rather dry subject—red sanders-smuggling—so entertaining in unexpected ways. Who would have thought that the visual of tree logs floating by in a river would result in such entertainment? A vast part of this film’s enjoyment is contained in the pre-interval portions when the filmmaker, whilst ensuring every scene explodes with wit and humour, introduces us to the power hierarchy and the impossibility of rising in such a rigged system. In Wasseypur-esque fashion, we also see that there are barely any decent men in this universe (a police inspector is an exception). Unlike in the Kashyap films though, there’s just a single protagonist here and played by a celebrated star to boot. I felt the uncomfortable dissonance of watching a murderous smuggler being presented as a mass hero worthy of adulation. Sure, he’s comparatively kind to women (and that’s barely saying anything), but does it necessarily make him worthy of cinematic adoration? Does the film love him because he’s so full of smarts? Perhaps it’s because he’s fearless? Or maybe on account of his unquenchable thirst for power, which Srivalli (Rashmika) bemoans? What does it say of this film that across its indulgent three-hour runtime, there’s no real exploration of this man’s flaws, of his emotionally stunted nature, which Srivalli assumes the best of?
The women are largely bystanders and victims, and while that might well be a commentary of the oppressive world around them, some of the film’s choices show that its view isn’t perhaps so well-intended. The big item song, ‘Ooh antaava’, is hardly the subversion many imagined it to be. The lyrics pretend to attack, but the song, the video, the situation… it all aims to please. Srivalli, meanwhile, is defined by the speed at which her saree falls off, each time she comes into focus. There’s a late half-hearted attempt in the film to force some agency into Srivalli’s character, but the weak monologue from her only seems like a crafty excuse. Pushpa meanwhile revels in his celebration of masculinity by rescuing her, and Srivalli responds by worshipping the sand that he walks on, whilst calling him ‘Saami’. There’s a scene in which a tearful Srivalli readies herself for incoming exploitation by taking bath and dressing up. On some level, it only ends up seeming like a metaphor for roles like this.
Many of these issues raise their ugly head after the interval, with the story losing its sense of direction, as it hurtles into a bizarre end featuring Fahadh Faasil who comes in from nowhere. The subplots stand unresolved, the high of Pushpa’s rise has already been forgotten, and yet, this film goes on and on, like a derailed train that’s a danger to both itself and everyone else. Even if films are part of a bigger whole, standalone films must still have their unique resolutions and exist as artwork with their own organic end. This film itself seems to recognise that it’s barely complete and dubs its end a ‘second interval’—which feels like a misstep at best and an insult at worst.
And yet, let it be said loudly and clearly that Pushpa isn’t a bad film or even a lazy film for that matter. You can see evidence of this largely in—allow me to re-emphasise this—its terrific dialogues. One pre-interval scene comes to mind. Pushpa has just soundly defeated an adversary and the latter, like in many a film, reels off some parting dialogues, including the threat that life will come full circle and that he will eventually get his chance at revenge. Pushpa hears him out patiently, and finally says one line that decimates his opponent: “Every loser says something like this.” It’s impossible not to laugh out loud—and that’s another strength of this film: all the effortless humour. A terrific central performance from Allu Arjun and plenty of sharp dialogues, and yet, Pushpa: The Rise – Part 1 should have done better. It’s impossible to shake off the feeling that the promise was not quite realised in this film, and now, the question is, will the makers be allowed another stab at it with a follow-up film? For all its flaws, I do think director Sukumar, on evidence of some inspired filmmaking during the pre-interval portions, deserves a chance to complete his vision. Perhaps that way, we might find some fulfillment too.