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Pushpa: The Rise (2021)

The three-hour-long first half of what is evidently an epic crime saga, “Pushpa: The Rise” recounts Allu Arjun’s titular character working his way up from lowly coolie born out of wedlock to boss of a lucrative sandalwood-smuggling syndicate. He displays ingenuity and cajones very early on, apt at doing whatever it takes to avoid getting busted by the authorities. Pushpa quickly earns the trust of Konda Reddy (Ajay Ghosh), who parcels out greater responsibilities and a percentage of the profits to him. Once he catches wind that dealer Mangalam Srinu (Sunil) grossly shortchanges them, Pushpa urges Konda to renegotiate. When Konda balks, Pushpa conspires to pit him against Mangalam and reap all the benefits.

It’s fascinating stuff to say the least. Pushpa’s ruse seems like a plot straight from Hong Kong or Hollywood, as does the childhood trauma that apparently fuels his ruthlessness. Writer-director Sukumar Bandreddi instills the kind of psychological depth and complexity in his protagonist seemingly rare in Indian cinema, regardless of the dialect. The fact that Pushpa is deprived of a surname growing up, due to his half-brother’s objection, appears to cut much deeper than the typical injustices endured by characters from lower castes.

“Pushpa: The Rise” also feels different artistically, which is both good and bad. It eschews the glitzy music-video aesthetics of commercial Indian cinema for a stagier look – recalling the works of Julie Taymor, perhaps. The tracks by Chandrabose have a tribal sound that’s unlike the thumping dance music de rigueur for the genre, and are paired with muscular choreography that gives off the same primitive vibe. Aside from the usual camera tricks – bullet time among them – cinematographer Mirosław Kuba Brożek employs an unusually rich earthy palette accentuated by gorgeous lighting. Scenes shot on a soundstage feature painted backgrounds, giving the film an air of theatrics. But sometimes it also feels as if the production simply ran out of money, especially given the shoddy computer animation and special effects. It’s too bad the post-production work is just not up to snuff, because there’s a lot to like here.


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