“I’m here to be your shadow”
I have never seen a Bollywood film before. The concept has never appealed to me. Yes, I enjoyed the dance number at the end of Slumdog Millionaire as a cool, ‘cast having fun’ type extra, but what it would feel like during the course of the film I just couldn’t fathom. Unsure whether it would be more cohesive musical or disjointed drama with music video interludes, my first Indian-produced cinema experience proved to be a little of both.
I should preface the fact that Vishnuvardhan‘s Panjaa isn’t actually Bollywood. A Telugu-language crime film, it belongs to Southern India’s Tollywood—a sister style and the third largest producer of cinema in the country. It’s catchy theme song, “Panjaa”, from Yuvan Shankar Raja stands alone as an excerpt of sex appeal, gunshots, and flipping acrobatics under a watery mist to separate the violent, action-packed prologue from the drama to come. Flashy and full of dance, the visual splendor has little to do with the plot besides highlighting our star Pawan Kalyan as Jai. Shown again at the close to send audience members out with a flourish, it differs from the other musical numbers serving as more story-specific montage vignettes of emotion and internal feelings.
With a screenplay from Rahul Koda and dialogue by Abburi Ravi, Panjaa sets up to be a fast-paced look at an underground mafia war between the powerful Bhagvan (Jackie Shroff) and his former disciple Kulkarni (Atul Kulkanri). Commencing with some stylish cutting between an assassination attempt and the conversation of its genesis, we learn of the bad blood fueling their feud and of the fearsome strength Jai wields at Bhagvan’s side. His boss’s self-proclaimed shadow, this young weapon of destruction appears to always be five steps ahead of enemy forces. And while the overall fight choreography may project an amateurish quality due to India’s lack of big Hollywood assets, Jai’s smooth operator’s cool professionalism still shines through.
At two and a half hours long, the whole of Panjaa does crawl at times due to heavy exposition and a budding romance breaking the bloody war apart for a lengthy stay outside of its Kolkata battleground. We learn about Jai’s loyalty to Bhagvan despite the favor being returned by making him watch over the man’s sadistic son Munna (Adivi Sesh). A heartfelt soul taking care of a nursery with friend Chotu (Ali) on the side, the question of why he stands so fervently behind a madman looms large before the story of Jai’s sister and mother is finally shared. Until then we simply must believe he has his reasons while wishing both Bhagvan and Munna will meet a bloody demise as the horrors inflicted on Janvi (model Anjali Lavania) and others prove too much.
The first act—there is an intermission—proves to be the more effective half if only because our entry into the second appears as though from a separate film. Respect is a common theme throughout as Jai must brush off Chotu’s queries to why he remains in bed with Bhagvan and internally wrestle with his own rationale. Fending off the advances of Janvi in his mafia life and falling for the horticulturist Sandya (Sarah-Jane Dias) in his personal one, we watch as love once more opens his heart. Never one to kill unless absolutely necessary anyway, Jai’s knife throws and gunshots maim as though to keep his soul intact. There’s much more to him than what the gangsters know, but he can’t let it show without risking Chotu and Sandya’s lives.
Utilizing tropes we’ve seen countless times before—the tragic clash between biological and adopted son creating a vengeful father following blood rather than brain—Jai unwittingly finds himself the cause of death for two men integral to the workings of Bhagvan and Kulkarni’s clans. On the run not from fear but because he cannot allow himself to kill the man who helped him as a boy, the film shifts towards the countryside as a new conflict begins featuring Sandya’s brother Ashok (Subbaraju), local police officer Paparayudu (Brahmanandam), and cruelly violent Sampath (Sampath Raj). Comical in the pursuit of this villain and romantic in Jai courting his love, the second half of the film serves as an excuse to add characters that may help our hero survive until his impending climatic fight. The humor surrounding Paparayudu’s drunkard is a nice escape like clumsy Chotu earlier, but the ends don’t justify such a lengthy subplot.
Luckily, however, the final battle lives up to the action sprinkled throughout. Allegiances fade and change sides while Jai is away and as a result he returns to Kolkata with the intent to take both crime syndicates out in order for his new life of peace to continue. The gunplay helps let us forget the low tech special effects of a previous rooftop chase and the tension mounts as Kalyan really rises to the occasion of destroying all in his path. And although his journey could have been pared down quite a bit, I’ll admit to enjoying the campy, over-the-top clichés and details like Jai’s cheesy sunglasses. Even the high style music interludes work with catchy tunes and overt sexuality contrasting the more morose, emotional drama underneath. When Panjaa works it works and ultimately proves worthy of a glance if you don’t mind wading through the rest.