Indian superstar Pawan Kalyan dashes through a dizzying spectrum of emotional extremes and personality traits in “Agnyaathavaasi,” a ferociously eager-to-please musical melodrama about ruthless ambition, violent revenge, and exuberantly schmaltzy music-video-style production numbers. Launched this week with the widest day-and-date U.S. release ever recorded for a Telugu cinema (AKA Tollywood) production, writer-director Trivikram Srinivas’ dial-it-to-11 extravaganza appears dedicated to the proposition that you can never have too much of several good things in the same scenario, even when such excess veers perilously close to wretched.
By turns exhilarating, exhausting and enervating, the movie likely will be appreciated best by the legions of fans who identify Kalyan as the “Power Star” in their universe, demanding such a range that it suggests a gender-switched remake of “Sybil.” And even for others not similarly enamored, this “Power Star” vehicle might be at least sporadically entertaining, if only for its gonzo verve and novelty value. The title translates as “Prince in Exile,” and, as might be expected, the free-form plot — which Srinivas stretches to encompass everything from broad slapstick to bloody mayhem — does indeed detail the adventures of a revered leader’s son who returns home to settle accounts.
At first, there are teasing indications that the movie will attempt a variation on “Hamlet” similar to that offered in Akira Kurosawa’s “The Bad Sleep Well,” with a lead character determined to uncover culprits after the death of his business tycoon father. Very early in “Agnyaathavaasi,” however, it becomes clear that Srinivas has something less predictable — and, arguably, more unhinged — in store for his audience.
Kalyan plays the protagonist, known variously as Abhi and Bala, who is summoned home by his beloved stepmother Indrani (Khushboo) after the murder of her husband, Vinda (Boman Irani), the head of a multinational pharmaceutical firm, and the “accidental” death of their son. Srinivas emphasizes, with pretty much the same blunt-force insistence that he devotes to hammering home every other major plot point, that Vinda took the precaution of having a Plan B in place for each of his personal and professional endeavors, and that firstborn son Abhi/Bala (who, for simplicity’s sake, shall henceforth be identified simply as Abhi) was raised in exile to be his heir — and, if necessary, his avenger. The young man’s qualifications for the latter role are underscored when we get our first glimpse of him taking on all comers, brutally killing or immobilizing them in an arduous marathon of mano-a-mano match-ups that might exhaust even Jason Bourne.
Once he arrives back in India, however, Abhi reveals a kinder and gentler side, along with propensity for klutzy bumbling and moony silliness, as he assumes a fake identity to climb the corporate ladder at AB Group, his late father’s company, while scrutinizing likely suspects among the upper management to discover who’s behind a very hostile takeover attempt. In the course of his investigation, he finds time to woo two beautiful co-workers (Keerthy Suresh and Anu Emmanuel), which in turn cues the usual masala of song-and-dance sequences. (One of these numbers, involving an interlude in Bulgaria, hints ever so playfully at the possibility of a threesome before Srinivas discreetly cuts away.) When he isn’t bumbling, or singing, Abhi often can be found shooting, slicing, stabbing and otherwise brutalizing any of the many would-be assassins who threaten him or his stepmom, in flamboyantly choreographed yet deadly serious scenes that suggest a bizarre collaboration of Gene Kelly and John Woo.
Huge swaths of “Agnyaathavaasi” are jaw-droppingly absurd, but those are preferable to the stretches that are dull and/or obnoxious. By and large, the performances (including Kalyan’s) are pitched at a level to impact viewers seated in the second balcony, or maybe even another auditorium at the megaplex, but it cannot be argued that they feel incongruous within the context of the movie’s overall tone of industrial-grade exaggeration.
It should be said that Khushboo’s relative restraint as she underplays Indrani sets her apart as the eye of this storm. Also worth noting, French writer-director Jérôme Salle already has complained about what he views as conspicuous similarities between “Agnyaathavaasi” and his own “The Heir Apparent: Largo Winch,” a 2008 film about… well, about an errant son who seeks to avenge his billionaire father’s murder.