REVIEW: “K.G.F. : Chapter 1” (2018)

After the Indian government bans his book detailing the troubling history of the Kolar Gold Fields and the powerful crime boss who took control of it, veteran reporter Anand Ingalagi (Anant Nag) sits down with skeptical television journalist Deepa Hegde (Malavika Avinash) to share a story the sitting Prime Minister has vowed to erase. Their interview serves as the framing device for “K.G.F: Chapter 1”, a time-spanning crime thriller from writer-director Prashanth Neel.

This first chapter of Neel’s ambitious two-parter sets itself deep within Indian gangland. It’s a film that’s high on style, heavy on action, and is carried by the powerhouse presence of its charismatic star, Yash. As far as the story, it’s both fascinating and frustrating. The structure is unique and audacious, building a complex world full of colorful characters, mob politics, and violence. At the same time, the non-linear hopscotch can be a challenge to follow, especially in the film’s attempt at covering a five-decade time period.

One thing you’ll immediately notice is Neel’s unique storytelling rhythm. There’s an almost feverish quality to his pacing and a near idolizing zeal in the way he speaks of his protagonist (which shows itself both narratively and visually). It gives the impression that the story is being told from someone’s heightened point-of-view. Much like the way that we excitedly embellish our own heroes and share their mythologies. It’s a rhythm that takes some getting used to, but once I did I was locked in.

Yash plays the intensely serious Rocky, an anti-hero who rose from poverty in Mumbai to become a renowned underworld assassin. As a bitter young boy, Rocky made a pledge to his ailing mother to become wealthy and powerful so that people would know his name. It’s a vow that will drive his character and the story through both films. Following her death, Rocky began working for an underboss in Bombay named Shetty (Dinesh Mangaluru). Over the years he would quickly rise in the ranks, and soon his notoriety equaled that of his boss.

Meanwhile Suryavardhan (Ramesh Indira), a powerful gold-smuggling crime boss who runs the Kolar Gold Fields (K.G.F.) is on his death bed. His greed-driven associates begin to worry about what will happen to their partnership once Suryavardhan’s ruthless son and heir Garuda (Ramachandra Raju) takes over the K.G.F. Intent on protecting their stakes in the operation, the associates call on Rocky, promising him full control of the Bombay underworld in exchange for killing Garuda. Rocky accepts, seeing this as another step in keeping his promise to his mother.

It’s here that we’re introduced to Reena (Srinidhi Shetty), an intriguing but underutilized supporting player who happens to be the spoiled fiance of one of Suryavardhan’s associates. I think we’re supposed to believe there’s a romantic tension between her and Rocky, but it’s a big ask. That’s because there’s never any convincing reason for us to. There’s no warmth, no relatable attraction, and certainly no romance. The movie throws them together for a couple of scenes and then Reena get tossed to the back-burner. It’s one of the movie’s biggest shortcomings.

The second half of the story sees Rocky infiltrating the K.G.F., posing as a miner in his effort to get close to Garuda. But once inside, he discovers that the miners are actually kidnapped slave laborers, forced to work under the brutal fist of Garuda and his henchman. After witnessing numerous atrocities and experiencing oppressive living conditions reminiscent of those he grew up in with his mother, Rocky suddenly has the potential to be something more than a hardened assassin. He could be a savior.

The film does a good job visualizing Rocky’s internal conflict during the second half. It does drag a little as it takes its time finally getting to the inevitable climax. But there is a struggle within Rocky that is pretty compelling. He’s not there to free anyone. He’s there to murder a cruel crime lord in order to gain the very power he vowed to gain. But he finds himself sympathetic to the plight of the people. But is that enough to pull him away from his own mission?

As the story’s simmer turns to a boil, we’re treated to a number of stylistic fight scenes and shoot-outs. The visual language of the action has a style all its own. It’s an array of brilliant choreography mixed with plenty of gratuitous slow-motion. At times it can be savage and completely over the top, yet all of it fits well within the almost mythical bounds of the film. The biggest inconsistency is with the editing. DP Bhuvan Gowda shoots one wow-worthy sequence after another, and he plays with a variety of cool techniques to give the movie its own energy. But the frenetic editing sometimes undermines Gowda’s eye-popping camerawork. It’s frustrating but hardly a deal-breaker.

By the end of “K.G.F: Chapter 1” I was both exhilarated and unsure. But the longer I’ve sat with it the more impressed I am with what Neel has created. Its criticisms make perfect sense. For some, the style-heavy flourishes will reach beyond overkill. Others will struggle with the fast-paced time-hopping and storytelling. Those are all legitimate beefs that do bring the movie down a notch. But once I fell in with its high-energy rhythm and its gritty immersive world, I was hooked. Better yet, I was all set for Chapter 2. “K.G.F: Chapter 1” is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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