When I first saw Mahesh Babu in a film, I couldn't believe he was going to perform action scenes in the film I was watching: with his baby face, parted hair, and scrawny build, he seemed like the third hero of some Yashraj tearfest. It soon became apparent, however, that Mahesh Babu was a different animal: when angry he looked feral and downright nasty, the sort of guy who might not match up toe-to-toe with serious brawn, but who was explosive enough to erupt in the odd thunderous punch or two, and who could be expected to level the playing field by fighting dirty. One half expected him to knee the bad guy in the groin, or slip a knife between his ribs when he wasn't looking. In short: one mean sonofagun.
The film was Okkadu -- part youth love story, part contemporary Ramayana, and all fun -- and I knew was hooked when Mahesh Babu first landed a punch on the Ravan-like Prakashraj, who is hurled onto some electrical wires: if the resulting sparks that served as a backdrop, first to the writhing Prakashraj, and second to Mahesh Babu, reminded you of Diwali and its celebration of Ravana's defeat and destruction, they were meant to. Bystanders were suitably impressed:
"He has beaten Obul Reddy at the Konda Reddy bridge; who is he?!"
"He's not from around here!"
Moments like that, my friend, are what masala legends are made of.
All of which meant that I awaited Pokiri, Mahesh Babu's 2006 megahit, with great anticipation. But boy, was I disappointed: instead of the seamless Okkadu director Puri Jagannath has given us a crude, episodic film with all the joints showing. Pandu (Mahesh Babu) plays the rogue of the film's title, a ruthless goon for hire who will do anything for money (or, almost anything: killing women and children is a big no-no) in a Hyderabad where the underworld is divided between two rival gangs of real estate racketeers, one led by Alibhai (Prakashraj) and the other by Narayan, with honest Assistant Commissioner of Police Muhammad Pasha Qadri (Sayaji Shinde) determined to clean up the city, although his efforts are undermined by the presence of corrupt cops like the sleazeball Inspector Pasupathi (Ashish Vidyarthi). Pandu's love interest (and the object of Pasupathi's lust) is aerobics instructor Shruti (the luscious Ileana), who mysteriously falls head over heels in love with the "rowdy" Pandu. The latter is hired by Narayan's gang to beat the crap out of one of Alibhai's lieutenants, a task Pandu performs so ably that the suitably impressed Alibhai gang begins to pay him for carrying out its own dirty work. Pandu is not susceptible to anyone's control, however, and his habit of leaving a long trail of bodies (gashed, hacked, shot, and chopped) behind him makes even his own allies uncomfortable. Things come to a head when Alibhai himself shows up in town, back from Dubai and determined to bring the fiercely independent Pandu to heel. A genuine twist follows, involving a retired cop and aerobics instructor Surya Narayana (an utterly wasted Nasseer), and countless fights and bodies later, guess who's the last man standing?
Pokiri had a fine masala premise, but is badly let down by the screenplay: Pandu's and Shruti's romantic scenes almost all appear as speedbreakers, presenting an accumulation of repetitive and dull scenes. Yet even this directorial failure pales in comparison to the hash that Jagannath has made of the song placement: every song except for the first one appears to have been rammed into the film at precisely the least appropriate point for it, and not even the winsome Ileana can make up for such a narrative mauling. Topping it all is the mother of irritating comedy tracks, and utterly undramatic didactic asides on the intellectual bankruptcy of the media, and for icing on the cake we have gratuitous crudity, in the form of an assault scene that positively revels in Ileana's kurta being ripped, and a plot development involving a porn film, the "stars" of which are a Minister's son and the drugged daughter of top cop Qadri. Some days it just doesn't pay to stick a film in the DVD player...
Mahesh Babu performs his part with conviction, though I for one would much rather see him as the sneaky streetsmart warrior of Okkadu than as the overman of Pokiri, a role that he simply lacks the physicality to do justice to (obviously Telugu filmgoers disagree, given the scale of success enjoyed by Pokiri); that being said there are some superb action sequences though (typically the ones involving firearms; the traditional beat-'em-ups are clunky and more stylized than Babu's frame can plausibly bear), but these are not enough to redeem the film in my eyes.
Perhaps most of all one misses the visual finesse of Okkadu, and there is nothing comparable to the 2003 film's sweep or its imagination, no analogue to Okkadu director Gunasekhara's marvelous sequence where Mahesh Babu and Bhumika Chawla outwit the cops by merging with a crowd of worshippers exiting Friday prayers at Hyderabad's Makkah Masjid, two colorfully dressed figures threading their way through the masses of white-garbed men and black garbed women proceeding up different alleys that meet at a right angle, as the men and women themselves do. And that seems to me by design: there isn't much scope for verve in Pokiri which seems a little too deliberately constructed to manufacture an overman aura for its hero. Given the film's success, Jagannath appears to have succeeded, though the result is no masala classic but a botched opportunity.