Cast: Allu Arjun, Rashmika Mandanna, Fahadh Faasil, Suneel, Anasuya Bharadwaj, Ajay Ghosh, Dhananjaya, Shatru
First, director Sukumar was conspicuously missing from the promotions. They said he was busy with the film's post-production work. No one knew whether it was last minute hustle or a filmmaker painstakingly sculpting his magnum opus frame by frame. Then, there is Allu Arjun who's been on the verge of breaking into the topmost tier of stardom. Yes, he's already a big star, but not yet the unquestioned superstar he is capable of becoming — one whose success or failures do nothing to dent the stardom.
There is also the issue regarding Devi Sri Prasad's music, which hasn't seen big highs in a long time, given he reserves his best for Sukumar — case in point Rangasthalam. And finally, the decision to break the film into two parts after announcing it as a single film has been most curious. Would the film have enough meat for two parts or was it trying to cash in on the success formula of KGF and Baahubali? Given how much buzz there is around the production and release of the film, it is almost impossible to see it as an independent work of art alone. But one must try.
Pushpa tells the story of a coolie Pushparaaj who is denied a surname because of his bastard status. He is constantly disrespected by his 'brothers' and the society around him in Chittoor District. But Pushpa has a super-power to smuggle red sanders which earns him a place in the good books of a local smuggler. Pushpa: The Rise, like a diligent biopic, chronicles the rise of its eponymous hero to the top of the pyramid… until something happens, but I'm getting ahead of myself.
The comparisons to Sukumar's previous work Rangasthalam are easy to make because these are both rural dramas and both have themes of upper-caste men abusing their power. And the music and songs have parallels too. Sukumar has a habit of correcting one film's mistakes in the next one. Whether they were the screenplay loopholes in 1 Nenokkaidine that made way for a more straightforward screenplay in Nannaku Prematho or the 'psychopathic' nature of Aarya in Aarya 2 being replaced with a more palatable egotist in 100% Love's Balu.
Pushpa, however, borrows from Sukumar's first mis-hit Jagadam. There too a young man rises up the ranks in the criminal world at great personal cost. That film, while labelled 'ahead of its time,' suffered from an inability to stay focused on its character. In Pushpa, Sukumar corrects that mistake and delivers some stunning set pieces. The sequence where Pushpa saves the day when it looks like the smugglers are done for is a stellar example. The interval sequence sets the screen on fire.
Much of the credit should go to Allu Arjun. If in Ala Vaikuntapurramloo he deliberately played to the gallery, in Pushpa, he earns more whistles as Pushparaaj than as Allu Arjun. He pulls off the costumes, makeup and accent with ease. It is a breath of fresh air to see Allu Arjun, the actor, on screen. In fact, look at his face when he begins to discover his true worth before he proceeds to confront Mangalam Sreenu (Sunil). Allu Arjun effortlessly embodies a little bit of feeling wronged — or as Pushpa would say not being a 'partner'— a little bit of ambition, and a whole lot of anger. But he gets this right without playing to the gallery.
But barring a few such sequences the film struggles to justify its length — it feels too long for one film, I can't imagine why we need a second part. I understand the temptation to create an epic saga like Nayakan did for Velu Naicker or Narcos for Pablo Escobar but do we need the boilerplate romance portions? These might have been fresh in another film, but in Pushpa, they are a drag. Even when Sukumar tries to involve her in the plot, it feels forced. Although Rashmika does her best to imbue bubbliness and the innocence required in these testosterone-charged surroundings, her brown-facing is unnecessary and ineffective.
The red sanders, which has driven the people mad after power, gives Pushpa a sense of identity and respect. But the story settles for using it as a mere theme to stack set pieces on, instead of exploring what Pushpa might be willing to sacrifice for it. The music is uneven. It adds precious little to take the proceedings on the screen to mass levels. Sunil, Ajay Ghosh, Anasuya, Shatru, Dhanunjay needed a little more bite to them; they almost always seem tepid compared to Pushpa.
And then, there's the matter of Fahadh Faasil. The film takes its own sweet time to get him involved – like a video game where the final boss comes. Worse, it is awkward to see him play Bhanwar Singh Sikhawat because his Malayalam-tainted Telugu eats away at the ferocity the background music hints at. The climax, though, risky and non-mainstream, begs for better.
The most unsatisfying thing about Pushpa is that it only tells half of the story. While Baahubali: The Beginning left us with one big question (Why did Kattappa kill Baahubali?), it also gave us a complete story. Even the ill-fated NTR biopic Kathanayakudu gave us a clear distinction of the man's life and it was easy to judge the first part.
But Pushpa is merely a series of slowly built setups rather than one complete story so it feels more like I'm writing this review during an inordinately long interval.