It starts as a virtual tour of a castle from a video game. Voila, a floating baby appears, a la Mahabharat. One Sholay-like chopping of limbs later, a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon battle sequence begins. The Lion King contributes a Zazu-like talking bird. Asterix chips in with a magic potion. Littered with these influences and many more, it would not be wrong to say Chimbudevan's Tamil-Hindi bilingual Puli is a truly inspired piece of filmmaking.
The story is the age old fight between good and evil. Good is the baby-faced hero found floating in the basket. Evil is the Vedaal clan with blue eyes, fangs and superhuman powers led by a tyrant Jalatharangam (Kannada star Sudeep) and evil queen Yamandevi (Sridevi, who appears only after the interval). They terrorise poor villagers with a Lagaan-like tax and Gabbar-like brute force. Enter our hero Maghadheera (Vijay). With the help of two bumbling sidekicks, a trio of Lilliputian pygmies (Alpha, Beta, and Gamma), a magic potion that works for eight minutes, and a helpful frog, he must enter the Vedaal castle, rescue his ladylove and save the human race.
He manages to do all this, and still find time for long song and dance sequences with the heroines -- Shruti Haasan, his childhood sweetheart and Hansika Motwani, the princess. In between, he learns to control a one eyed troll with sheer will power, pass the Vedaal version of an agnipariksha and triumph in a Gladiator-like battle.
The story goes back and forth multiple times in a bid to explain causes and effects and the relationships between the characters, but still manages to remain convoluted. It is as if the editor has placed the flashback scenes at random. The music, if one can be charitable and give that name to the cacophony, is an excuse for skin show by the heroines and a bevy of backup dancers. The costume design is quirky, especially the fruit- and vegetable-inspired clothes worn by the little people. The attempts at humour are unbelievably lame -- a man with two moustaches, a vomit-spewing giant turtle, a frog that must be licked to turn into a direction giving compass. So puerile is the humor that the biggest laugh comes when in a film featuring weighty names (Pavazhamani, Maghadeera, Nambudevan), a dying character is called Pushpa.
Stepping into this fantasy world of too much song, dance and slapstick humour, into a castle of flat fake easily scalable walls and a gladiatorial arena of cement, one wonders if this very inspired director found the time to watch Game of Thrones. For what is a fairytale without at least a believable castle? One can hardly expect magic from cinematographer artist Natarajan Subramaniam when all he has to work with are one-dimensional sets borrowed from last decade's video games.
A still from 'Puli', featuring Vijay (left) and Sudeep
It is only when Sridevi enters Puli, post the interval, that the fairy tale finally takes shape. Hope springs. The castle may be crummy, but its queen is majestic. In the presence of the evil queen, the princesses pale and the hero deflates. She rules the screen, exuding menace and madness like a veteran. Sridevi's star power camouflages, if only for a little bit, the penury of the production design, the bumbling of the rest of the cast, and the lack of soul in the script. But far too soon, the repetitive battle scenes take over, as do yet more flashbacks and songs, and the fairy tale loses its way.
It is ironic that Puli means 'tiger' because actor Vijay who plays the lead role exhibits not a single tiger-like quality. An awkward lover, a warrior who can barely wield a sword and with no physique to boast of, he is overshadowed even by Shruti Haasan's just competent presence. He simply disappears in the presence of Sridevi. Forget roaring, this is a tiger without even a meow.
There is a reason we love fantasy. It takes us away from the mundane. It gives us hope that one day a prince will come. It makes us believe in the bravery of men. And that good will triumph over evil. But in the Puli version of fantasy, the good is so grating and the prince so plain, that evil seems to be the more interesting alternative. But in a late plot twist even the evil that entertained for a bit betrays our hopes. Puli is a reminder that Chimbudevan's fantasy is our nightmare.