First Take | Pushpa: The Rise to Kurup, why do we make films about criminals and sociopaths?

I feel sorry for those who get entertained by the endless surge of villainy and the tiresome torrent of tyranny that is unleashed by the volley of unscrupulous villains with sundry mafia-like agendas.

Subhash K Jha January 03, 2022 14:37:16 IST
First Take | Pushpa: The Rise to Kurup, why do we make films about criminals and sociopaths?

Allu Arjun in Pushpa: The Rise

I have often wondered: why do we make films about criminals and sociopaths? What was so fascinating about Raman Raghav or Charles Sobhraj that we needed multiple  movies about them? Are we so short of real heroes that we need to dig out the lives of scumbags from the dingy caves where they belong?

These were my thoughts as I watched Dulquer Salman in the Malayalam film Kurup and Allu Arjun in the Telugu release Pushpa: The Rise.

Two questions haunted me as I sat through two hours and 35 minutes of Srinath Rajendran’s slog of a film: why a  biopic on a scumbag like Sukumara Kurup, whose life-story is certainly not of any social validity? And if a biopic on this trashy man is the need of the hour (you never know what would assuage the nation’s collective conscience in these troubled times), why is the storytelling so unnecessarily complicated and convoluted with multiple perceptions being thrust on Kurup’s life in a most redundant and annoying ‘he-dead-he-dead-not’ kind of storytelling pattern, more suited to a biopic on Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose than a conman who seems to have no scruples killing, maiming, burning, and defrauding the innocent.

Since Kurup (which, by the way, means 'ugly' in Hindi) is played by Malayalam superstar Dulquer Salmaan, the criminal is duly humanised. As played by Salmaan, Kurup is roguish, charming, even irresistible, at least to Sharda, played by Sobhita Dhulipala, who seems to have made a career out of playing women who get involved with the most dubious kind of men.

When we first meet Kurup, he has joined the air force. He is rakish and genial, a favourite. This strain of affable presentation continues to haunt the film right to its over-clever climax. The scriptwriters seem to think in tandem with its protagonist. This would have been a good thing if the subject of the cinematic exploration was a saint, a thinker or a philosopher. But a sociopath? Who the hell cares?

What is the purpose behind this biopic about a man civilisation would like to forget? Are we so short of truly inspirational characters? Or is this just a whimsical excursion for a star who has the clout to do anything on screen, and is not using that clout judiciously?

First Take  Pushpa The Rise to Kurup why do we make films about criminals and sociopaths

Dulquer Salmaan in and as Kurup

Salmaan’s Kurup is not only elusive, he is also hazy and very badly sketched. As a star vehicle for Salmaan, the  narrative lets its audience down by obliterating him from the screen for a longish period  in the second half. Come to think of it, there is more of the cop Krishna Das in the script than Kurup.

Das is played well by Indrajith Sukumaran, a very fine actor who brings a certain nuance to his character, seen to be tragically absent from Salmaan's portrayal of the sociopath. Salmaan's Kurup is full of loopy grins and  enigmatic smoke-rings, all amounting to more suggestion than substance, more hints than statements.

It is not all Salmaan’s fault. The periodicity, specially in Mumbai (then Bombay) portions in the early 1970s, is replete with Hindi spoken with a thick Malayali accent. At one point, we see a poster of the Ashok Kumar-starrer  Oonche Log in 1970, when in fact, the film released in 1965.

I could not help comparing Salmaan's Kurup with Tahar Rahim’s Charles Sobhraj in The Serpent. The two outlaws were similar in their modus operandi. Whereas Rahim plays Sobhraj as calculating and cold-blooded, Salmaan’s  Kurup is spontaneous and cute, as though the real Kurup became what he was only so that one day, Salmaan  would play him on screen.

The film, sad to say, is woefully crude and tactless, unleashing the kind of melodramatic maelstrom that may have appealed two decades earlier. Now, it all seems way too gruff, grisly, and old-world to be forgiven as mere 'entertainment.'

I feel sorry for those who get entertained by the endless surge of villainy and the tiresome torrent of tyranny that  is unleashed by the volley of unscrupulous villains with sundry mafia-like agendas.

In director Sukumar’s Pushpa: The Rise, our unlikely hero is named Pushpa Raj. Do not make thI feel sorry for those who get entertained by the endless surge of villainy and the tiresome torrent of tyranny that  is unleashed by the volley of unscrupulous villains with sundry mafia-like agendas. Do not make the mistake of considering him a flower, for he is not a damn phool but a raging fire: Pushpa reminds us of that more than once during the course of this coarse, and often repugnant, action drama which makes the cardinal mistake of  distinguishing the Good Antisocial from the Bad Antisocial.

Since a huge star, Allu Arjun, plays the Good Antisocial, he is seen to be an outlaw with a sound moral code underlining his criminal  behaviour. For example, he treats women with respect. Or so he tells us early in the long-and-winding, loud-and-whining melodrama. The facts tell another story. When the spunky village girl  Srivalli (Rashmika Mandanna) refuses to reciprocate his feelings for her, Pushpa’s sidekick bribes the girl to smile and  kiss Pushpa.

In a sequence that audiences have objected to, he gropes her in a car. We do not know how much money exchanged hands for this deed. Or for the suhaag raat, which will probably happen in Part 2 of this ongoing nerve-wracking monstrosity of the action-adventure drama.

The writing is so dated that the whole romantic subplot feels  like it belongs to a museum of the defunct arts. In a notably obnoxious twist of the plot, one of the villains (do not ask which one, as they all crowd the bustling canvas and they are all for some strange reason, dark-complexioned) tells Srivalli to go home, bathe, soap, bedeck herself in a silk sari, come back, and spend the night with him in exchange for her father’s life.

Srivalli dresses up and heads for the hero's home, and knocks his door for help. Yes, the same one whom she was bribed to kiss. What follows is an orgy of mayhem that leaves the camera and the audience in a spin. Even before we recover from this aggressive onslaught on our senses, the extraordinarily talented Fahadh Faasil shows up at the fag end of the film as the baap of all corrupt cops, shaven head, twirling  moustache and  all. The conflict  between Arjun and Faasil, replete with dialogues insulting the hero’s parentage and the villain’s greed, has to be seen to be believed.

Pushpa: The Rise frequently has us scratching our heads in disbelief, stretching all incredulity beyond breaking point to show the loutish hero making his way up the crime syndicate with the kind of street wisdom that would not fool a child from a primary school, let alone all these hardened sadistic criminals, who do not just threaten to blow off their enemies’ heads, they go right ahead and do the dirty deed.

Standing tall in the morass of mayhem is Allu Arjun in a career-transformative performance, his slouching body language, his nervous dance moves, and his gravelly dialogue delivery are all a marvl to behold. I would gladly  look at Pushpa as a showcase of Arjun’s talents were it not for the shoddy moral dynamics and the motorised  mean machinery of the film, which steamrolls any of the good intentions, if any. By the time the great Fahadh  Faasil walks in, it was too late to wonder why he was there in the film practising the Gulshan Grover brand of villainy.

Subhash K Jha is a Patna-based film critic who has been writing about Bollywood for long enough to know the industry inside out. He tweets at SubhashK_Jha.

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