Generally speaking, if most Telugu filmmakers may be said to write the songs and fights situations first and then the rest of the story, and most Kannada filmmakers may be said to watch Telugu (or even Tamil and Mallu movies) and then write a story, some characteristically realistic (but not always necessarily intelligent) Tamil filmmakers of our day seem to write the climax first and then start conjuring up the remaining part of the story.
The last thing a viewer who likes an apparently raw, rural-based and realistic Kollywood film would like to see in it is irresponsible story-writing. When you are watching a second-rate Telugu director's film, you know what to expect: cheap frills, over-the-top crassness, exaggerated action, a bit of voyeurism. Tamil directors, especially Prabhu Solomon who is definitely a good talent, do not resort to any gimmicks at all.
Or so we thought till recently. Maybe, it is time we wake up to the fact that sometimes, some of them are gimmicky - but only a bit differently. A violent character or two, a self-defeatist character or two, a loyal sidekick or two, one innocuous girl, one mad-in-love boy (preferably both should be as poor as poverty can get), a comedian who is blissfully self-deprecatory, a dialogue or two on the greatness of being fanatical and/or self-delusional in love, a climax that is either a tragedy or a semi-tragedy. Gajaraju, in addition to some of these, has a sentimental animal, whose mahout has a brain of a mouse's size.
There need not be any reason to complain as long as the behavior of the main characters makes sense and the story setting is appealing enough. The problem with Gajaraju is that it has neither.
Bopanna (Vikram Prabhu) is an honest, ruggedly looking, emotional mahout of Manikyam (the elephant). Somewhere in Chittoor district, an adivasi community has been facing existential threat from a beastly, blood-curdling wild tusker named Kapali. When a close associate of Bopanna fails to deliver Kumki, a feral tusker which is meant to eliminate wild tuskers, to the adivasi group on time, our hero takes it upon himself to reach the adivasi dwelling along with Manikyam and his two sidekicks, impersonating himself as the mahout of a kumki elephant.
Bopanna thinks that he will fool the village people for the next two days till the real kumki is brought in by the actual owner. Sadly for us and the village, he falls in love with Singhi (Lakshmi Menon) on day one. Once in love, he is blinded to the fact that he is gambling with the lives of hundreds of villagers by deliberately extending his stay in the village just to be able to get close to Sanghi.
The village head has complete faith in Bopanna that he will save the village in the event of Kapali going on a killing rampage at any time. At one point, Bopanna realizes that he has been committing a grave mistake by putting the lives of the villagers in danger and decides to ask the owner of the real Kumki to arrive at the scene with his brave tusker.
However, Thambi Ramaiah (as Bopanna's maternal uncle) brainwashes him to stay put because if he leaves the village, he will miss Sanghi forever. What's more, the way to marrying Sanghi is fraught with so many obstacles - the biggest of them being the endogamous rules of marriage followed by the self- isolated adivasi community.
How do Sanghi and Bopanna marry eventually? Will the village head garland instead of beheading Bopanna when he comes to know that he was cheated by him? How does Manikyam, the timid tusker, save the village when Kapali arrives?
Here is why we call Gajaraju an example of irresponsible writing:
It is Thambi Ramaiah who is the film's hero, not Bopanna. While he evokes many laughs in the first half, his role refuses to slide into unimportance for a good part of the second half too. By hinging on a comedian character's strength in an otherwise serious film, the director betrays his lack of conviction.
2. What does Bopanna do, you ask? He has nothing much to talk. For that matter, he has no brain and even a conscience. He is reduced to live in a state of trance in the songs, thinking all day and night about his girl.
3. Yes, it is not a must that we have a verbose/brainy hero. But is it too much to expect the hero to have sympathy for human lives? What kind of a human being gambles with the lives of an entire village population for a selfish reason?
4. But why should we call it irresponsible especially when the hero is shown repenting for his selfish thinking in the last scene? Because there is a gimmick that Prabhu Solomon plays here to fool (entertain) the gullible. Bopanna is shown as ever ready to sacrifice himself because he is deeply ennobled by the faith that the villagers have reposed in him. In fact, he is not sacrificing only himself but the lives of hundreds of children, women and men by keeping the real Kumki from entering the village and going to play the war with his non-violent tusker. This element is camouflaged by the director. Further, the village head is shown lionizing Bopanna even after he comes to know the truth about Bopanna's identity.
5. The climax would have made sense had the hero led his timid Manikyam in the fight against Kapali. It might have been seen as unrealistic by the discerning audience, but it would have been seen as a dramatic sequence in the worst case. Even the character which played the title role (the elephant) is an accidental hero.
6. There is no consistency in Thambi's behavior. Why will someone who has been dreading at the thought of Kapali attacking the village and the villagers killing them in the event of their knowing the truth advice Bopanna to stay put?
Irresponsible writing doesn't mean the film is badly made. Thambi's comedy is enjoyable. Imman's music is liltingly beautiful but not fresh. The dialogues are well-written. K Sukumar's cinematography is a big asset. Technically, the film is perfect.
Vikram Prabhu, Shivaji Ganesan's grandson and Prabhu's son, does the part well. Ashwin Raja is convicing as the heavily bearded and cudmudgeon head. Lakshmi Menon has no starry charm, but she emotes well.
All in all, if you are someone who enjoys good execution and gives to hoots to intelligent writing, watch Gajaraju and you won't have any complaints. But don't forget that for most of us, it is 'ado type cinema.'