Movie Review: Raja the Great
The latest Tollywood film to come stateside has its moments, but ultimately Raja the Great is dragged down by an excess of excess.
Thanks to my brother, I’ve gotten an introduction to Indian Cinema in general and Tollywood films in specific. Baahubali was a box office juggernaut for Indian films, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we are on the cusp of a Tollywood cinematic invasion, similar to when Chinese films made US overtures thanks to Bruce Lee, Jet Li, and our own personal favorite Jackie Chan.
Luckily for me, I don’t have to wait for an invasion, as one of our local cinemas plays Bolly/Tollywood films as often as they can get their hands on them. That’s how I found out about Raja the Great, a new Telegu film that released yesterday. I plunked my $10 down, and came away mixed. Some of Raja the Great is genuinely winsome, it’s just too long and indulgent a film for its own good.
Raja the Great (2017)
Lucky (Mehreen Pirzada) grew up very lucky: she was the apple of her police officer father’s eye. As the sole parent in her life, Officer Prakash (Prakash Raj) lavishes her with all his time, money, and affection. Now on the cusp of womanhood, Lucky’s luck is about to run out. Her father has been transferred to a very dangerous province, where the sons of the local don rule the countryside with iron fists. When one of the brothers is gunned down in a bust, the surviving son Devaraj (Vivan Bhatena) makes it his life’s mission to punish the Police officers and everyone they love.
Lucky is caught up in the bloodshed, and only she survives Devaraj’s wrath. Now on the lam, Lucky needs a miracle to make it to her next birthday. Thankfully, a miracle-man is working his way to her. Earlier in life, Prakash had shown kindness to a policewoman whose son Raja had lost his sight in an accident. Now Raja (Ravi Teja) looks to repay that kindness by becoming Lucky’s guardian angel.
Nothing in Indian cinema is small potatoes, apparently. Everything is spectacle, larger than life and more colorful than the rainbow. Even mundane tasks like going to the market are likely to erupt in song and dance. Everything also has a layer of style caked onto it, a suffusion of Indian pop culture that would be garish if it didn’t seem so earnest. Everyone dresses like they are in a boy band; most of the actors might actually be in a boy band.
If I had to make my experiences with Bolly/Tollywood films relatable, I’d harken back to when Broadway burst onto film. From Danny Kaye through to Julie Andrews, the stories were bursting at the seems with color and music. Add a dash of Korean pop-star infatuation, and a dollop of Peking Opera to the mix, and you have a pretty close approximation of what’s going on in Raja the Great.
The film starts with a song number so saccharin and doting that Disney is probably mad they hadn’t written it. We then get an action sequence that felt dragged into the modern era straight from Once Upon a Time in China. We get witty banter, sporty action and playful songs next, as if Gershwin had decided to write a musical version of Dodgeball: An Underdog Story.
Raja the Great is just that all over the place, people.
Wondering About Wonders (What Doesn’t Work)
I hate to lead with the negative, but it will inform what DOES work about Raja the Great, so here we go.
First and foremost, this movie is stuffed. This movie is a comedy, an action movie, a thriller, a love story, a family drama, AND it even throws in five minutes of night vision camera work so it can check off horror on its list. It’s much too much. Each genre fights each other, and the flow of the film suffers greatly for it. The comedy was the worst offender. It didn’t break the tension so much as break the immersion. Speaking of breaking things, this movie likes to break the fourth wall a lot. I think Ryan Reynolds might have had a writer’s credit.
It almost pulls it off (we’ll talk about that in a second), but it commits a final, damning sin: it sticks around too long. This movie has such a force of nature aspect to it, that it had me stunned for most of its runtime. Devaraj remarks early on that he is a wonder of the world; and that according to science the human mind is stunned in the presence of wonders for 10 seconds. If so, this film lasts 12 seconds. It had one too many song, trotted out the trademark joke one too many time, and couldn’t leave a good ending alone.
Love to Love You (What Works)
The earnestness of Raja the Great goes a long way towards redeeming it. There are about two promo photos for this film that aren’t the cast making each other crack up. Something about a film people enjoyed making translates to the final product, and Raja the Great had a palpable sense of fun. Also, the majority of the songs were exuberant in that same earnest, fun manner. The only two songs that didn’t work were the songs that honestly should have hit that nonexistent cutting room floor.
The plotline of Raja not only saving Lucky’s life, but reminding her why life is worth living was the best part. While I can’t say that Pirvada and Teja had chemistry per se, they did work well together… when the script let them have interactions that weren’t about building the legend of this blind Superman. Similarly, when Raja interacts with his mother, or when Prakash’s parting gift to his daughter is revealed, the film shows its heart to great effect. If they make a sequel (and this film was begging you to want one), I hope they can the scripted humor, and focus on the heart and unforced fun that was trying to sneak its way into your eyeballs.
Klaatu Errata Nikto
This review might feel a little jumbled. The frenetic, everything goes manner of Raja the Great makes it hard to boil down to a few key points. As such, I’m going to just anecdote my way through some other questions you might have about this film, and then get to my final feelings.
- How does Raja the Great treat blindness? I’d have to give it a barely passing grade. It doesn’t use it as a crutch, but I don’t really think they did the blind any real service in this portrayal. You get good moments, bad moments/jokes, and legend building exaggerations. Smoosh Deadpool and Daredevil together and you might get the picture.
- How does Raja the Great treat women? Once again, it’s a mixed bag. I had my eye on this question going in, coming off my problems with Baahubali. Once again we get sexism-lite fighting genuine portrayals of empowered women. I’m also not sure whether to give the film props for body positivity, but almost all the actresses had realistic bodies, and it wasn’t even a thing to anyone. So yay?
How is the action? Abundant, but poorly choreographed. The times I could clearly see punches being pulled and blows “landing” nowhere close to their intended target was countless. Raja the Great had great ideas for action sequences, it just couldn’t pull them off.
- Will I suffer through localization? Yes, yes you will. I am very fast at reading subtitles; I cut my teeth on Anime for years. Even I struggled. The subtitles were horrendous. Deciphering the “translation” during all the sights and sounds was like trying to do calculus on Peyote.
Appreciation is not Necessarily Enjoyment
I did not hate my time with Raja the Great. But I enjoyed it more as cultural education than I did as a cinematic experience. There are things about Tollywood’s way of doing movies that are either unique or a call-back to a time in American cinema long past. But just like I had zero desire to watch La La Land for nostalgia purposes, I would have passed on this film had I known it was an exploratory expedition. There is fun to be had with this kind of film. Unfortunately, Raja the Great makes you work a little too hard to get it.
Tollywood movies are inherently interesting. I hope they can evolve while keeping their uniqueness and vibrancy. That would be truly great.