Prasanth Neel direct's this '70s set action epic starring Yash
It's a brave new world out there for Indian regional cinema. After the breakout success of S.S. Rajamouli's Telugu language historical epic Baahubali, and the continuing - though baffling - success of Shankar's 2.0, Indian films in languages other than the dominant Hindi tongue are making their marks not only on the local box office but around the country and the world. One such regional industry that has been waiting for its moment to shine is the Kannada language film industry, colloquially known as Sandalwood, and they've taken a huge swing with director Prashanth Neel's sophomore effort, K.G.F.
K.G.F. stands for Kolar Gold Fields, a real-life mining district in the Kannada speaking state of Karnataka in South India. The film centers on the exploitation of the gold and posits a history in which the mines were slaved over by captive villagers in the region, waiting for a hero to save them from their dire existences. A work of speculative historical fiction, K.G.F. Chapter 1 is an action epic that attempts to span the gap between The Godfather, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Mad Max, and Baahubali in a way that is incredibly ambitious, but perhaps stretches itself a bit thin in its attempts to be all things to all people.
Kannada language super Yash is Rocky, an orphan whose journey from rags to riches is drenched in blood as he laws his way up from the Mumbai slums to the second in command to a local mafia Don. Rocky doesn't speak much, but when he does, it's usually to let everyone around him know what a badass he is. Thankfully for him, he can back up his bravado with action, and he does so frequently, much to the delight of the wolf-whistling crowd.
When his gang boss decides that a local policeman needs to be taken down a peg or two, young Rocky volunteers for the unpopular task of delivering the beating and earns serious street cred in the process. When he's asked what he wants from all of his trouble, he responds, "Duniya", he wants the world, and he'll stop at nothing to get it.
Rocky's path to the top is not unlike any number of video game platformers. Every time he thinks he's defeated the biggest boss around, it turns out that there's another boss pulling his strings and he has to keep leveling up throughout the film. When he discovers that the real Big Bad is reigning over the titular gold fields, he has to find a way in to one of the most fiercely guarded locations in the country and take him out from the inside. It's not going to be easy, but boy will it ever look cool.
Prashanth Neel's film is most definitely a handsome affair. Shot on a reported $11 million dollar budget, K.G.F. meticulously recreates not only the Mumbai and Bangalore of the '80s with a seedy sheen, but also creates a fascinating vision of the gold mining camp that is somewhere between a tribal village and a dystopian Mad Max-style wasteland. There is an overwhelming warmness to the visuals that conveys a kind of tension that really helps the film feel intense, even when it threatens to boil over into self-indulgence.
Like many mainstream Indian epics, K.G.F. is truly a film of two parts: pre- and post-intermission. The opening section is the making of Rocky, him battling his way through the underworld to become the man he is to be, and the second section is set completely in the mining camp, where all of that character building is meant to pay off. While the introduction had plenty to enjoy, there was just too much repetition for me, whereas the second half is when the film really came alive.
K.G.F. is framed as the untold history of the ancient riches of Karnataka, unearthed by an investigative reporter in the form of a book long thought lost. The reporter sets out to interview the author to get the real story which leads to this massively filmi (read: melodramatic) hero-building tale. The practical effect of this wraparound is the fact that all of the action can be read as hyperbolic, and therefore its bigness can be seen as an effect of an excitable memory. It's a clever tact that also allows for the film to throw in teases of events that may or may not take place in the already-planned sequel. However, in the cinema it is largely used as a device to deliver breaks in the tension via an excitable chaiwala who is tasked with bringing the interviewer and interviewee their tea while pulling ridiculous faces at every act of violence committed by Rocky.
This also brings up the issue of the film's planned sequel and the way it affects the delivery of the plot as it stands. Everything about Chapter 1 is designed to create a character for the ages, a character who - while he does have something of an arc in this first part - will eventually become the greatest villain/hero in India, which leaves the audience with cinematic blueballs to some degree.
K.G.F.'s structure is most obviously modeled after Baahubali, the planned diptych that took the world by storm a couple of years ago, but the execution in this case is significantly less successful. With Baahubali, the writers created a world filled with characters who all get their chances to shine and show their own true colors, making it a well-rounded world with plenty to explore. K.G.F. shines its spotlight solely on Rocky, leaving his co-stars little to do apart from cower beneath him. Yes, there are moments of tension, and Rocky takes a few licks here and there, but his enemies and even his comrades are little more than cardboard cutouts set in place to make him shine.
Fans of Indian action film will find plenty to enjoy in K.G.F., there are beatings, shootings, and explosions galore, and all delivered with typical subcontinental flair. However, the film does overstay its welcome a bit at a full three hours, which may be perfect for the home audience who has come to except the excess, but outside audiences will likely find the run time a bit of a challenge. As for me, I really liked it and am definitely on board for Chapter 2, but I definitely hope they give us more to chew on with the world around Rocky, because as of right now, I'm not as blown away by the world building as I want to be.