One of the surprising new fads in Indian cinema these days is the children’s film and who better to lead the charge than the Walt Disney Company, purveyor of quality American children’s films. Disney joined hands with the Telugu film industry with the aim of creating something quite different – a children’s fantasy film the likes of which had never been seen before. Anaganaga O Dheerudu (Once Upon A Warrior) was that film. Starring everybody’s favorite chocolate hero, Siddharth, as the mystical warrior Yodha who must defeat an evil sorceress and save his kingdom, the film released in the Indian market back in January to mixed reviews and an underwhelming response at the box office.
(Undeterred by this, Disney plan to include Anaganaga O Dheerudu as one of three films it will be releasing on DVD, iTunes, and streaming formats on July 26th. Check the official site here for information.)
I was lucky enough to have a chance to review the film prior to the official USA release and I have to say that I, too, was underwhelmed and I completely understand why it tanked at the box office.
Anaganaga O Dheerudu takes place in the mystical fantasy land of Anga Rastham, where an evil sorceress named Irendi (Lakshmi Manchu) has taken control of the entire realm. She needs human blood to survive and is understandably tired of harvesting it from her only known relative, an insufferable girl named Priya (Shruti Hasaan.) Doing the only reasonable thing, Irendi consults the snake oracle that manifests itself in her hairdo. The hair-snake tells her to find a holy girl child named Moksha (Baby Harshita) and once she combines Moksha’s blood with her own powers, she won’t need to drain anybody’s blood ever again. One problem with this plan – Moksha is protected by the warrior Yodha (Siddharth), who has his own reasons for getting revenge on Irendi.
Let me start with the good things first. The performances from Siddharth and Lakshmi Manchu are wonderful. I was really dubious that the no six-pack Siddharth could play a warrior but he managed it quite credibly – even if the costume occasionally (and unintentionally) emphasized his less than perfect physique. Yodha’s feats were less muscular and more graceful, pulling on Sid's years of dance training. And he made the character of Yodha somebody that I wanted to cheer for, even when he was doing things that were somewhat questionable… like seducing the insufferable Priya. Laxmi Manchu had a different challenge. She needed to sell Irendi’s over-the-top costumes and make-up as sinister and menacing, instead of silly, and she succeeded with aplomb. Irendi was a magnificent villainess and I was quite sorry that she had to be defeated.
I also quite enjoyed both the music and the art design. Mickey J. Meyer’s “Chandamaamala,” picturized on Siddharth doing a stage show for the village, is especially delightful. Sung by Karthik, it has a light, graceful melody that is well suited to Siddharth’s dancing. Irendi’s item sung by Geetha Madhuri, “Pralaya Kaalabheela Dhamshtra Vighaatha” is the other picturization that really stands out. She is both menacing and alluring – how does Laxmi Manchu do it?! Between Irendi and the evil Chitti from Endhiran, I could really get behind this dancing villain trend.
Clearly a lot of time and effort was spent on costuming, make-up, and set design. The film does look gorgeous. A lot of the sets have a very organic feel, as if they sprung up out of the ground, taking inspiration from sunflowers, lotuses, eggs, snails, jellyfish, and all other sorts of things. Irendi’s make-up was wonderful with lots of spangly eye shadow and menacingly thin eyebrows. Yodha’s costuming had the aforementioned problem of Siddharth’s non-muscular body but for the most part it works quite well. The aesthetics reminded me quite favorably of Jim Henson’s The Storyteller, if anybody remembers that show.
Now, notice that I haven’t really mentioned two things – Shruti Hasaan and the script, both of which really prevent the film from taking off and becoming enjoyable. I’ll just go ahead and be blunt; Shruti Hasaan is a terrible actress. The way everybody talks about Priya, I think we’re supposed think she's a sharp and sassy fortuneteller with a heart of gold, a Kajal Agarwal kind of girl. Shruti plays her like an over-sexed Playboy Bunny with not even two brain cells to rub together. Every expression on her face is vapid and the camera spends far more time lingering on Shruti’s gym-toned abs than it does establishing her as anything other than a ditz. After about 30 seconds of dialogues from Priya, I couldn’t have cared less about what happened to her character. I’m not sure if there was any reason beyond the slim, gym-toned abs that was responsible for casting Shruti but considering her previous bad performances in ultra-flop films like Luck, it seems kind of a folly to put her in the lead of a pricey film like this one.
It seems worthwhile to separate the story and script for Anaganaga O Dheerudu because the story, on the surface, is actually quite a lot of fun - Irendi and her hair-oracle; a subplot about how religion is kind of bogus; sending a warrior and a little girl on a quest. Unfortunately, the plotting really drags everything down. Flashbacks are poorly integrated into the narrative, random characters pop in and out – like a massively offensive transvestite character who is obsessed with Yodha, we spend way too much time with a dull romance track, and the action sequences are too simplistic. Essentially, any time spent away from Irendi and her machinations was wasted screenspace.
So, let’s get right down to it. Is Anaganaga O Dheerudu a worthwhile film? I would say… maybe. Considering this is a film for children, it surprises me a bit that Disney hasn’t done an English dubbed version because the colorful (and sometimes silly) adventures of Yodha have considerable appeal for the under 10 set - exactly the people who can’t read subtitles. But I do think that there is one audience who will enjoy this English-subtitled Telugu film quite a bit – nerdy Westerners who have never seen a masala film before but who enjoy anime and other East Asian cultural products. For people who haven’t seen anything like the inspired chaos of a popular Indian film, Anaganaga O Dheerudu could have much of the same cross-cultural appeal as something like a Bride and Prejudice does. For those of us who love masala… well, I would look elsewhere for your fix, unless you are a hardcore Siddharth fan.
And as a final note, I have to say that for all its flaws, there was a lot of heart to this film and if this is the kind of thing Disney would like to produce in India, more power to them! (Just be sure to run the script through quality control, first.)