There is something unwieldy about the 2019 Malayalam Lucifer, the highest grossing Malayalam film starring Mohanlal. At almost three hours, the political thriller moved sluggishly in many directions, with some characters making an entry as late as the second-half of the film. Mohanlal himself was only introduced half-hour into the sputtering, chaotic, word-heavy proceedings. His first knockout mass scene, intended to satiate his frenzied fandom, comes after an hour.
Despite this leisurely flab, Lucifer provided a template for an ageing superstar. One that did not involve romancing women half their age, or requiring them to dance and fight as though their limbs ceased wrinkling. It completely desexualizes the protagonist to the point where it refuses to even consider Mohanlal’s character ever having had a love life or trails of lust left in the past. Which is why it makes perfect sense for Chiranjeevi — or Megastar Chiranjeevi — to take the Malayalam mantle further North, towards Telugu-nadu.
The broad strokes of the story are the same. A formidable politician PKR has passed away. His daughter (Nayanthara), his son-in-law (Satyadev Kancharana), his Home minister (Murali Sharma), and his right-hand man (Chiranjeevi) are introduced in one fell swoop of exposition. In the Malayalam version, an investigative journalist with books of Edward Snowden and Julian Assange on his bookshelf does a Facebook live, explaining the context to us — and to his Facebook audience. Here, the journalist, with a statue of Buddha, goes live on YouTube, and just as the budget of Godfather is perhaps three to four times that of Lucifer, the views on his YouTube and the dark wealth he is trying to unearth too have more zeroes and more eyeballs. Everything here is bigger, including the crowds and the sweep — cinematographer Nirav Shah’s king-sized framing of this king-sized world.
But the sobering impulse of Lucifer is still here. That to be a politician is different from being a political leader. It is a cynical distinction, because according to this, no hero could be a politician, because the very notion of being a politician is to be beholden to someone, to something; and a hero is beholden to none but their muscle and mind. Chiranjeevi, after a failed decade in politics, coming back to cinema, and recasting his failure as a politician as a vindication of his heroism is a turn no one would have expected. That he was never meant to be a politician, because he is a king-maker, a leader, which, according to this film, is an entirely different kind of stretch. As he says, in a moment that builds on biography with filmography, politics may be far away from him, but he isn’t far away from politics. That he would always choose praja over party.
Chiranjeevi’s filmography from his debut 44 years ago, in 1978, traverses Telugu cinema’s journey into the 21st century. As S.V. Srinivas writes in his book Megastar Chiranjeevi and Telugu Cinema after N T Rama Rao, “The study of the ‘Chiranjeevi phenomenon’, in its screen manifestation, is a study of the mass film.” In the early Nineties, when Chiranjeevi was heating up in popularity, he was the highest paid actor, more than Amitabh Bachchan or Rajinikanth (he got a whopping Rs. 1.25 crore for a film). In this context, Srinivas calls Telugu cinema “foundationally populist” because it existed for and was made according to the demands of the spectator, that the genre conventions — the whistle moments — came about because we wanted them to come about.
Keeping this in mind, Godfather is an odd film. Chiranjeevi — known for his acrobatic frollicking and the odd, sweet, compelling ways his limbs swing — does not dance, barring the fingering he and Salman Khan do to Prabhu Deva’s choreography in the end credits. Even the action sequences have a lethargy. They are edited more than they are performed. So you see a shot of Chiranjeevi pulping his various enemies; then, his enemies flying off in various states of undress and duress. We don’t ever get to see this as one continuous action because it never is one continuous action. The beating and the being beaten are separated by the cinematic cut.
I find the dance star and the action star a fascinating figure, because it is one where we can actually see how their existence has made possible the idea that the body could move a certain way. When we see Chiranjeevi, Hrithik Roshan, Shahid Kapoor, Tiger Shroff dance, we see not just an agile body, but a body of possibility, that the human limbs are capable of doing that, and our inability is on us. It is not just awe for something that captures our imagination. It is awe that is dependent deeply on our incapacities, our lethargies.
Godfather, however, has a different trick up its sleeve. In one of its most exciting moments, Chiranjeevi is seated, smiling like Mona Lisa — that disturbing nonchalance, that shameless, unchallenged power — in a jail cell. When his son-in-law, the villain of this movie, the man who put him in jail comes to his cell to gloat, you don’t see Chiranjeevi agitated. When, after speaking like a victor, the son-in-law then tries to make an exit, he realizes the cell is locked from the outside and the guard on duty is not listening to him. The scene now revs. The guard looks at Chiranjeevi instead, for his permission to unbuckle the door. Chiranjeevi swipes his eyes. The guard listens, opening the bolt. That even jailed, he is the one with the power. Perhaps, the mass of mass cinema is located not in actions but in gestures.
Writer and director Mohan Raja melts some of the flab of the source material. For example, he takes two characters from Lucifer — the sibling, the daughter — and makes them one, while using that additional space to create a more sensational world, full of the balletic excess of mass cinema. He also tries to forcefully press humour against the story, which is perhaps a mass cinema thing. My criticism of this film, then, becomes my criticism of the genre itself. Which is to say, Godfather is a thrilling film, whose thrills are undone by its desperate need to pander.
There is also this odd relationship these films have to the North, to Mumbai specifically. Mumbai is this place that is beyond description — this mythical hotspot, this mayanagari full of cloistered, miasmic slums and airy sea links. It is morally depraved. Drugs. Dancing girls. Communalism. It looms large over their imagination, and their economy. Even when the hero needs an outer, greater power to come help him the day — Prithviraj in Lucifer and Salman Khan in Godfather — he comes from Mumbai. Of course Lucifer is more stinging when it comes to its criticism of saffron politics and the pumping corporate currency bedrock on which its success stands. Godfather is too politically meek to make that kind of an assertion.
What does not work in Godfather is Salman Khan’s cameo. One of the most visually striking stretches of Lucifer was Prithviraj bursting trucks of drugs into ash and cinder against the carbon black night. Here, instead, we get Salman Khan fan service, including him riding a bike against a green screen of a night-road lit by the headlamp of his bike. The problem with the kind of stardom Khan has acquired is that you can never see the character, so apparent and insistent is the Salman Khan-ness of Salman Khan. It is the kind of cameo where you remember the kind things he said about Chiranjeevi, about doing this cameo for free, and smile at the camaraderie that brought them together — instead of actually smiling at seeing them together. Because so much of these scenes are not about the scenes per se but what led to it. Towards the end, they hold a machine gun like a baby, swaddling it, and the machine vomits bullets. Some people die. The slow accretion, the loud avalanche of mass scenes comes to an end. The two dance. Roll, end credits.