Aranya movie review: Rana Daggubati and the elephants deserve a better film
Aranya, Rana Daggubati's film on ecosystem conservation, is educational but exceptionally insipid.
Aranya could have been a slideshow about elephants and the role they play in the forests. Because that’s what Prabhu Solomon, writer and director of the film, wants to convey in the end. He tells us that their dung is a great fertiliser that allows seeds to grow. Without elephants, the forests, as we know today, might look very different. For that matter, there might not be a forest, which will in turn affect rainfall, agriculture, and our whole survival will be at stake. That’s why we should all #SaveTheElephants. It sounds perfect as a pitch deck. But then, how does one make an engaging film out of this drama? The elephant, at best, can only trumpet. How does one address the elephant in the room about elephants in the forests? The former elephant is our apathy and greed, and the latter is a symbol of strength and power.
Prabhu Solomon has spent a large part of his filmmaking career exploring stories set in forests — Mynaa, Kumki, Kumki 2, and now Aranya (Kaadan in Tamil). Perhaps, he sees and hears things that aren’t instantly apparent to most of us. You can’t shake off the feeling that maybe, Rana Daggubati who plays Aranya, the Forest Man, is himself a manifestation of Solomon himself who trumpets the message about forests and elephants from the first frame to the last. Throughout the film, we are told a lot of things about what not to do in a forest and why it’s essential to not plunder the ecosystem for our own greed. It’s an educational film on elephants that very few mainstream films have even dared to attempt. But there’s another elephant in the room which tries to convince itself that no one’s watching it. Aranya is a bland film, which doesn’t do justice to its story or the many issues that it tries to address. Every other subplot is trampled upon without a second thought, and except for Rana Daggubati, who makes an earnest attempt to do something different, nothing else makes an impact.
The film’s most impactful segment is the very first scene. The panoramic view of the forest, mountains, the chirping of birds, the fog snaking its way to every nook and corner of the region...Solomon transports you to a different realm that you don’t even care where in the country is this story set in. A little later, we are introduced to Aranya (Daggubati), who’s credited as India’s Forest Man. He has planted more than 1 lakh trees on his own, his family has been taking care of the forest for at least three generations, he knows and understands the language of the birds and animals, and communicates with them easily. More importantly, he loves elephants, and they love him back. But then, Aranya is no Tarzan! He knows his rights and understands how courts work. He cares about the forest so much that even the sound of wood being hammered into soil irritates him. Perhaps, it disturbs the jungle frequency where all birds and animals send voice notes to Aranya, or so it seems. One fine day, a corrupt politician sends his henchmen to build a township in this forest, and the rest of the story is all about how Aranya handles the situation.
Aranya, the film, is a cacophony of ideas and the screenplay is derived from Murphy’s Law - Anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Right from the moment, Aranya drives away intruders, we get a clear idea of what’s coming next and how rampant urbanisation is leading to more man vs animal conflicts. Since it’s a forest, Prabhu Solomon also includes a subplot about indigenous tribes, and naxalites. What the film essentially tries to do is ask us a simple question - Who does the forest belong to? Is it the property of the state, which sometimes pays no attention to the rights of people living inside the forest for generations? Does it belong to animals, especially elephants among others, which nourish it and shape the ecosystem? Or does it belong to anyone who respects the way of the jungle? But then, there are no easy answers. It’s a different issue that almost every other character in the film is filled with so many stereotypes that you would rather want to have a conversation with the elephants themselves. At least, they seem to feel a lot more frustration and pain, and actually show that they care about those who care for them.
The film tries really hard to make us empathise with the fate of forest dwellers, and that of Aranya himself, who doesn’t give up despite the odds against him. You can see the sheer hard work that Rana has put in, whether it’s his body language or the way he emotes in that state (he always seems to be in an anxious state), to play the role. And he trumpets his voice right till the end because no one loves or cares about the elephants as much as he does. And then, everything goes downhill. What exactly is Vishnu Vishal doing in this film, or why Zoya Hussain is cast in an inconsequential role, or why Shriya Pilgaonkar seems to have only six lines to speak in the entire film, or why Anant Mahadevan has such a shallow role....it’s probably easier to understand the plight of the elephants in the forest than these characters in the story.
There is, however, one thing which the film achieves quite well. It makes a convincing pitch to the viewers that elephants have feelings and no one should destroy the natural ecosystems. The message might be the only good thing about this story because everything else seems to lose its sheen. Solomon drops seeds of thoughts all over the forest and expects us to connect the dots, when neither the path nor the storytelling is interesting. Quite frankly, Rana and the elephants needed a better film.
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