(Spoiler Alert)

Within the first eight minutes of Tuck Jagadish, a Telugu language drama directed by Shiva Nirvana, four men are gruesomely murdered, in separate incidents of land disputes. Scenes of betrayal, high-pitched wailing and battered life in a village ruled by a brutal landlord. However, in the ninth minute, the film changes costume to become a comedy. The hero’s homecoming. Jagadish (Nani) enters in a shiny car, rolling out deadpan humour. In his palatial house, he reunites with a horde of relatives who, like diligent stage artistes, come forward one by one and perform soap-operatic melodrama. The background score oscillates unevenly between mawkish and upbeat.

In Tuck Jagadish, emotional continuity is as petty a concept as subtlety.

At the centre of the film are two feudal families. Jagadish, the scion of one of the families, possesses a laughably heightened version of righteousness. In an early scene, he is seen carefully tending to an injured fowl. At the same time, Veerendra (Daniel Balaji), the head of the second family, is a blown-up villain who flexes his muscles and clenches teeth for reasons as minor as a wailing infant. A thoroughly remorseless murderer, the latter is also a habitual sexual harasser. He controls the local land revenue office, the film’s centre of conflicts, using money and muscle.

Veerendra is the yin to Jagadish’s yang; an uncouth villager diagonally opposite to an educated modern man who likes to dress like he is ready for office any time. When the villain sets out to grab the peasants’ farm plots, the hero abandons his boyishness and assumes the role of the village’s guardian.

Tuck Jagadish belongs to the new Telugu cinema that borrows elements from the erstwhile leftist Erra Cinema that portrayed the struggles of the peasant community in the region, not because it endorses the ideology of the latter but because it looks cool. In an early scene filmed like a joke, the hero and his friends disguise themselves as Naxalites and assault a corrupt officer at his official guest house. In a pivotal scene, Jagadish urges the peasants to take on Veerendra and claim their right to work on their land. A folk song about agriculture begins in the background, only to metamorphose a couple of lines later into a devotional song that praises the late landlord (Nasser) and his suave, educated son. The landlord is not a despicable entity in Tuck Jagadish, but a redeemer, an overseer of reforms.

There are twists aplenty in Tuck Jagadish but, thanks to unimaginative writing and staging of scenes that render the narrative bumpy, none of them are convincing. The pivotal revelation scene is inserted into the narrative in the silliest manner, likely to cause even the most loyal mass cinema viewer to go, “Really, now?!”

And Jagadish is not a character worth empathising with or rooting for. He does not undergo a journey but stays still and detached throughout the narrative, like a demi-god powered by his lineage. Now and then, he reminisces about his childhood, his eyes welling up and a piece of sentimental music playing in the background. However, the flashback bits show a nondescript childhood, nothing deserving the spectator’s attention.

The film’s most treasured secret is the duality of his personality. For the viewers who might feel disappointed by the hero’s aversion to violence in the early scene, the film offers several gifts in the latter half of the narrative. Jagadish unleashes bloody assault on the villains, severs limbs and breaks bones while being careful to keep his facial muscles still and hairdo intact. Do not be fooled by the young landlord’s tucked-in shirt and sophisticated ways, the film gloats, for he can perform gravity-defying stunts and carry a sickle around like any masala movie hero.

Nani, whose greatest strengths are his comic timing and a natural charm that makes him tick in romantic comedies, stiffens up and imitates his inferior contemporaries, turning Jagadish into a lifeless cliche. The courting scenes featuring him and Ritu Varma, who plays a junior officer at the land revenue office, are dull. The actors’ performances seem half-hearted, as though they feel romance is beneath their characters. Varma, a solid actor, is wasted in a role where she plays the hero’s sidekick who looks at him in awe and pride in regular intervals. Also, the film has Aishwarya Rajesh, a fantastic actor, in a supporting role that could have been played by a table lamp.

What makes mass movies work are the little things – cliches turned on their heads, quirks in sync with the narrative’s internal logic, and a hero who knows his strengths. Tuck Jagadish has a masala exterior, but it uses a poor mix of sentimentality and a show of uprightness to narrate the story. There isn’t a clever or lively rewatchable moment in the narrative. All there is, is an all-pervading blandness.

****

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