By the time Sridevi shows up in the massive-budget fantasy epic Puli, its few charms have worn off and the iconic actress appears like an empress who’s shown up at an unimaginative costume party. Chimbudeven’s film is a sluggish and boring affair, despite much going on: babies are Moses’d into baskets (alongside with breakfast), red birds talk in a human tongue but nobody considers this a big deal, and all-powerful vampire creatures wear lots of armour and chainmail to protect themselves from the puny humans. It is also a film where the protagonists, in order to further the narrative, are made to lick a toad — which is blatantly an endorsement for dropping acid but Puli, believe you me, makes for a truly bad trip.
What, however, does Sridevi do? When we finally see her — the striking veteran luring us into theatres with her badass maleficence in the trailers — the film has tortured us past intermission point and there may be no turning back. There isn’t. Regal and out of place as she is, Sridevi gamely embraces the lunacy and starts walking up the side of a pillar — despite visual effects specialists from several countries working on this ‘epic,’ the laughable result is closer to Batman walking up walls in the 60s TV show.
The effects, to be fair, aren’t all hideous. The animatronic creatures are well rendered, with frogs pointing out directions and birds laughing at poor jokes, and the horses in this film wear suitably intimidating gear, but that’s about all we can say in terms of positives. Oh, and the second half, full of long one-on-one duels, is significantly better than the first — but that’s largely because Sridevi’s around and because the eternally insufferable Shruti Haasan is bound and (invisibly) gagged through most of it.
A big part of the problem with this fantasy is the hero, Vijay, a childish looking fellow we are supposed to believe is a hardcore warrior and a highly strategic thinker. None of this comes across as we first see him walking out on screen bored and pouting, as if already wary of all this tacky cosplaying. Vijay plays a villager called Magadheera, a well-liked fellow whose dad had his arm sliced off and sister had her neck sliced off, but he seems content to sit back and pretend he’s brave in order to flirt with Shruti Haasan, the chief’s daughter.
The well-armoured vampires kidnap said girl, which leads our hero and his friends — which include a talking bird, three pocket-sized people called Alpha, Beta and Gamma and a toad for them all to lick — into the fearsome fortress to fight evil queen Sridevi, menacingly glaring at them as if English Vinglish had flopped. It’s all quite pathetic, to be honest, what with Magadheera painting his eyeballs blue with poster colour and — in flashback — an older, long-haired Vijay with his mane fanned furiously, grimacing as if he were Sonu Nigam attempting to sing metal.
And somewhere in the middle of all this inanity are tiny dancing women wearing peanut-shells for bustiers. Oh yes.
As a film for children, it may have worked if it had a sharper plot or if it at least hurried along this one. As it stands, Puli is merely exhausting, and — speaking as someone who has never watched a Vijay film before — exposes him as a tremendously limited leading man, utterly lacking in the charisma a role like this requires.
There isn’t much a good hero could have done here either, though. I was reminded mostly of the inane but compellingly watchable Haatim Tai from 25 years ago featuring Jeetendra and Satish Shah. That was a trashy film with hairy-armed women, cheesy fangs and a disturbing amount of giantess-ing, but at least the riddle-filled narrative held our interest. Puli, made on a far bigger scale, is much grander and stupider, with Tinu Anand playing a saint with Marge Simpson hair and a nameless bloodthirsty demon introducing himself as “a bloodthirsty demon” as if he’s run out of business cards.
We must look to Sridevi for the answers, and these she provides whimsically, teleporting several times mid-sentence as she speaks to the heroes. Clearly Puli needs you to make (or carry) your own entertainment.
Rating: 1.5 stars
First published Rediff, October 2, 2015