Story: Pushpa Raj is a coolie who rises in the world of red sandalwood smuggling. Along the way, he doesn’t shy from making an enemy or two.
Review: With Pushpa: The Rise, Sukumar ventures into unchartered territory by making a rustic masala film filled with punch dialogues, characters that speak in a Chittoor dialect and a story that’s rooted deep in the region it’s set in. And seeing as how expectations were sky-high after Rangasthalam, what he delivers turns out to be a mixed bag that’s over-long, falters at times and delivers what it promises at others.
Pushpa Raj (Allu Arjun) is one of the many coolies in Seshachalam who chop down red sandalwood illegally and sell it by the kilo to powers-that-be. In a syndicate that consists of numerous players, Pushpa slowly learns to find his footing and rise in ranks till the man who would once chop down these trees becomes the one giving the orders. However, his Achilles heel is not his lady love Srivalli (Rashmika Mandanna), or the big-wigs Konda Reddy (Ajay Ghosh), Jolly Reddy (Dhananjay), Mangalam Srinu (Sunil) and his wife Dakshayani (Anasuya Baradwaj). It is the fact that his brother (Ajay) won’t let him claim his lineage, something that takes Pushpa from zero to hundred in no time and often becomes the reason for this laid-back, sarcastic, arrogant, even funny man to lose his cool. And right as he gets where he wants to be in life, in comes IPS Bhanwar Singh Shekawat (Fahadh Faasil) threatening to upend the carefully constructed order that Pushpa has put in place.
Pushpa: The Rise is backed by a story that’s often explored in cinema – the rise of the underdog. So Sukumar really has nothing new to explore here. What’s new is the way he chooses to expand the story and spend time on setting up Pushpa’s character for a whole film, spanning three hours, before getting into the thick of things. And this move really might not sit well with everyone because despite all the hoopla, that is essentially what this film is. Pushpa might have made foes of numerous people, but none of them seem to even remotely be a match to his unbending nature, that is, till Shekawat comes into town. Sukumar’s film fares well when it sticks to the story at hand and focuses on the nitty gritty of red sanders smuggling, Pushpa’s contribution to smoothening things out, etc. Where the film falters is when it tries to pull off an odd (and problematic) romance between him and Srivalli, this doesn’t always work or even add to the larger story at hand. Sure, Pushpa gets a chance to be her knight-in-shining-armour but it seems to move the story in a direction it would’ve gone anyway. The final confrontation between Pushpa and Shekawat also doesn’t have the desired effect, coming off as rushed and the latter’s character seeming underwhelming.
Also underwhelming are the VFX, art direction, editing and sound design in certain scenes. The team of Pushpa: The Rise did not hide the fact that they had to rush to release the film on time and it shows through the cracks. Given the run-time that seems unwarranted already, the technical glitches only make the flaws all the more glaring. Where Pushpa: The Rise shines is when it comes to the casting, direction, cinematography, costumes and music for the most part. Sure, the BGM by Devi Sri Prasad might seem underwhelming at times, but his music more than makes up for it because it blends well into the story. Cinematographer Mirosław Kuba Brożek and director Sukumar seem to have found the perfect groove for this film, complementing each other with their work. Pushpa’s character’s costumes see a change depending on his standing in this world. The supporting cast also gets a chance to shine, despite sometimes being pigeon-holed into playing characters that are nothing more than cookie-cutter. Rashmika also seems misplaced in a film that’s high on testosterone. Anasuya on the other hand gets a scene with Sunil that proves she’s a fit in this world. Samantha’s cameo in Oo Antava Oo Oo Antava elicits whistles, to no one’s surprise.
With all said and done, Pushpa: The Rise is Allu Arjun’s show all the way. He shines in playing this rustic character that is hard on the surface but vulnerable in ways that others don’t see. Allu Arjun’s fans might be happy to see him shaking a leg briefly in numbers like Saami Saami and Eyy Bidda Idhi Naa Adda but he truly shines when he’s in a tussle for power, with Peter Hein, Ram-Laxman choreographing some stunning action sequences or when he’s brushing off being called coolie oda constantly because he knows he’s too good for whatever others stereotype him as. He also gets a chance to show off his acting chops, apart from the dialect he worked hard on, when he shoulders a film as massive as this one, sometimes he even makes you laugh.
Sukumar’s Pushpa: The Rise shows promise when it wraps things up and sets up things for Pushpa 2. Despite the film being a mixed bag, it does make you curious for what’s to come. If only to see if Fahadh and Allu Arjun get to set the screen on fire.