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-[Film Reviews]-, South Asian Cinema, South Indian Cinema

‘Magadheera’ (2009): The Pan-Indian Rajamouli Blockbuster-Prototype

Directed by: S. S. Rajamouli || Produced by: Allu Aravind, B. V. S. N. Prasad

Screenplay by: S. S. Rajamouli || Starring: Ram Charan, Srihari, Kajal Aggarwal, Dev Gill, Kanneganti Brahmanandam

Music by: M. M. Keeravani || Cinematography: K. K. Senthil Kumar || Edited by: Kotagiri Venkateswara Rao || Country: India || Language: Telugu

Running Time: 166 minutes

The whirlwind international success of S. S. Rajamouli’s latest hit, RRR (2022), particularly amongst Western critics who’ve never before reviewed an Indian film beyond artsy, self-important crap like The Lunchbox (2013), felt bizarre to me. I’ve long recognized Indian cinema‘s influence in the developing world, South Asia most of all, but to say there’s a dearth of appreciation for popular Indian cinema (e.g. Hindi-language Bollywood, South Indian Cinema, streaming productions like Delhi Crime [2019, 2022], Sacred Games [2018-2019], etc.) amongst English-speaking cinephiles to this day would be an understatement. Slumdog Millionaire (2008, an excellent British production with little stylistic overlap to mainstream South Asian filmmaking) introduced most Westerners to A. R. Rahman well over a decade ago, yes, broad, watered down Hindi-English works by Indian expatriates like Mira Nair (e.g. Salaam Bombay [1988]), Monsoon Wedding [2001]) gel with independent filmmaking communities Stateside and elsewhere, sure, as do the boring works of Bengali directors like Satyajit Ray and Ritwek Ghatak… but unless you’re a member of the South Asian diaspora, there’s little interest in the West for the types of Indian movies that most Indians actually watch.

Top: Srihari (foreground center), who died four years after Magadheera’s release at only 49 years of age, provides effective comic relief throughout the story. Bottom: In the 17th century flashbacks, star Ram Charan battles dozens of armed assailants in a neat composition of physical sets and blue-screen backgrounds.

A new trending term within contemporary South Asian cinema is the “pan-Indian film,” which is meant to describe Indian productions that appeal to all Indian audiences, the diaspora included, regardless of language, but de facto means a South Indian (often Telugu) production that achieves massive popularity instead of the traditionally more dominant Hindi-language productions of Mumbai. Rajamouli arguably founded the movement and popularized the term with his Baahubali (2015, 2017) fantasy movies, which paved the way for future Dravidian-language box office hits like 2.0 (2018), K. G. F. (2019, 2022), Saaho (2019), Pushpa (2021, 2023), and of course RRR. What most of these films have in common, from what I can tell, is an overwhelming emphasis on Hollywood-style — though to be frank, not Hollywood-caliber — special FX within an expensive high-concept, mythological Hindu fantasy or science-fiction premise.

One of Rajamouli’s earlier noteworthy action movies that set the stage for his later hits is Magadheera (English = “The Heroic Man”), also his first collaboration with Ram Charan and the latter’s career breakout. Written both as a historical fantasy in the vein of 300 (2007) and a sort of reincarnation time-travel narrative a la Madhumati (1958) or Om Shanti Om (2007), Magadheera’s dual premises are a big part of the movie’s charm and provide great variety of locations, set-designs, and action scenes in modern to pre-colonial Indian environments. The story involves Charan’s contemporary protagonist unlocking either genetic or spiritual memories of his warrior ancestors in the present, which provides nice motivation for him to win over his aspiring love-interest (Kajal Aggarwal) from the clutches of her possessive cousin, antagonist Dev Gill, all of whom have ancestral counterparts in the historical flashbacks.

It’s not a bad yarn, all things considered, and is paced well across Magadheera’s 166-minute running time, briefer than both RRR and Baahubali. On the other hand, the most impressive elements of Magadheera involve Rajamouli’s direction, namely how restrained it feels in comparison to his two most recent, far more successful movies. Rajamouli doesn’t go overboard with computer generated imagery (CGI) and paces his special FX across smaller, more relatable set-pieces (you’ll find no comical avalanches, stampeding buffalo herds, or CGI tigers here), and yet he still finds time for practical stunts like a nice helicopter crash in the finale. The only directorial shortcomings here involve the movie’s unacceptable digital establishing shots in the flashbacks, which stand out like a sore thumb compared to the rest of the film’s decent composite backgrounds and should’ve been replaced by miniature sets (remember those?). 

All things considered, the most frustrating aspect of Magadheera is how much more of an effective pan-Indian hit it should’ve become relative to Baahubali and especially RRR. Baahubali was my first Rajamouli epic and RRR is a hard film not to enjoy, but I can’t help but criticize both movies for succumbing to many of the cliches of international blockbuster filmmaking, namely overstaying their welcome (Baahubali), using way too much CGI (Baahubali and RRR), and shoehorning lazy, cringeworthy villains (RRR) into an otherwise competent script. Magadheera does none of those things and yet contains the same pulpy genre charm of the best of Rajamouli’s filmography.

Charan dances with female lead Kajal Aggarwal in the song “Dheera Dheera,” which, along with the rest of the soundtrack, is the lone attribute that pails in comparison to Rajamouli’s most recent films.

Despite Indian filmmaking’s musical appeal to me and its stylistic differences from Hollywood, I wonder if the industrial (i.e. blockbuster)-status of popular Indian filmmaking, Bollywood and South Indian Cinema most of all, are what discourage foreign cinephiles from following it. Popular Hindi and Dravidian-language crowdpleasers are geared toward the Indian subcontinent plus oversees residents at their absolute broadest level, and have little to no interest in currying (pun intended) favor with Western audiences; that nativist attitude, combined with the simplistic, FX-driven nature of blockbuster cinema in general, which much of the developed world already gets from Hollywood, may explain why RRR and Baahubali remain memorable yet exceptional breakout hits. S. S. Rajamouli’s Magadheera is an interesting developmental prototype for the modern pan-Indian film movement, which in some respects is ironic given how its rougher style and modest (by South Asian standards) runtime should make it more appealing to most international audiences than its auteur’s later movies. It’s well directed, written, and acted, excising much of the screenplay bloat that weighs down many popular Bollywood blockbusters in particular (e.g. Kuch Kuch Hota Hai [1998], Lagaan [2001], Jodhaa Akbar [2008], Dhoom 3 [2013]), so it’s a shame that it will be relegated to a footnote in Rajamouli’s impressive career.

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SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Magadheera represents a nice middle-ground between the limited regional success of older South Indian Cinema and the big-budgeted, wannabe Hollywood excesses of today’s pan-Indian flicks given its potent action set-pieces, creative reincarnation-fantasy plot, and effective villainy. S. S. Rajamouli’s directorial restraint stands out here as much as his special FX consistency.

However… CGI establishing shots that wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny in a PlayStation 3 videogame distract from the immersive flashback sequences.

—> RECOMMENDED for fans of Baahubali and RRR, but also those interested in something less braggadocios.

? Why couldn’t they show more angles of that chopper explosion?

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.

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