(TW: sexual violence)
“Violence violence violence,” Rocky says in Prashanth Neel’s K.G.F. Chapter 2 (2022). “I don’t like it.” It’s funny because it’s so untrue. Rocky loves violence and, after four brutal films, it’s reasonable to assume Neel does too. It’s his calling card: Rajamouli does the grandest action, Lokesh the hippest, Neel the bloodiest.
Salaar: Part 1—Ceasefire is my first Neel in a movie theatre—though it felt more like an amphitheatre, erupting every time Prabhas chopped off a limb or put a spike through someone. Hearing an all-male crowd baying for blood first thing in the morning is an occupational hazard, but the bigger problem with Salaar is the constant threat of sexual violence. Of the three prominent female characters, two narrowly escape assault. It sets the film in motion. Deva’s mother is on the verge of being raped when his friend, Vardha, eldest son of Khansaar’s ruler, saves them. Thirty odd minutes in, Aadhya (Shruti Haasan) is surrounded by goons who call her their ‘property’ and grope her before she’s rescued. There’s a musical sequence building up to the rape of a young girl, and a big action sequence that just prevents another. It’s a disappointing thing for Neel to thread through his film, and does nothing to alter the image of Telugu action as India’s Neanderthal cinema.
Years later, Deva (Prabhas) and his mother, Radha (Easwari Rao), are in hiding in Tinsukia, Assam, far from the fortress town of Khansaar. Even for a three-hour film, the opening stretch is protracted, and simmers with unconsummated violence (Deva, who’s given Radha his word not to break heads, leaves his handprint on a pole after gripping it in frustration). Aadhya’s arrival changes everything, forcing Deva to emerge from the shadows, slaughter her would-be abductors, who are actually looking for him.
Having put Aadhya in danger and plucked her out, the film reduces her to a narrative device. She—and the viewer—are given a potted 1000-year history of Khansaar, a fierce (fictional) outpost that resisted British occupation and assimilation with independent India. Over time, three resident tribes fall out and vie for control of what has become a powerful criminal empire. When Vardha’s (Prithviraj Sukumaran) father, Raja Mannar (Jagapathi Babu), is away on business, assorted chieftains—too numerous to name here—try and force a coup. In the resulting confusion—exemplified by Aadhya saying ‘wait’ and ‘what’ at regular intervals—the clans assemble their armies (mercenaries from Ukraine, Serbia and ‘south Sudan’ are brought in). Vardha’s army is just Deva, who's so formidable his enemies seem to forget they can shoot him from a safe distance.
The density of the plotting—there are close to two dozen characters that require keeping track of—is at odds with lack of formal invention the writing displays. The K.G.F. films had more coherent mythmaking. The extended flashback taking up a whole half and continuing into the sequel is the legacy of Baahubali. Instead of doing something new and fun with the beats he has to hit (entry scene, heroes team up scene), Neel gives us stock situations slowed down. But a head lopped off in slow motion isn’t that much more interesting than a head falling in real time. The fights are passable; not an advance on Neel's previous work, not close to challenging for the all-India crown.
In the months leading up to Salaar’s release, its publicists touted the use of a visual technique called DCT (dark centric theme). I can’t find a single citation of DCT online that doesn’t mention Salaar, but even if it’s a thing that actually exists doesn’t mean it was the right decision. It’s one thing to have a supersaturated palette, another to apply it indiscriminately to every frame. Some scenes are undeniably striking in their charcoal grittiness. But after a while, day looks like night, one warring tribe looks like the other, and everyone could do with a wash. Murkiness, murkiness, murkiness. I don’t like it.