Who doesn’t love a gangster drama that unveils a bloody criminal underworld which is elusive to commoners? Indian cinema has seen many biopics or fictionalised retellings about underworld personalities, with some glorifying the subject and others taking a more objective look at their lives. However, the intention of the makers is to present the human side of the character.
In the Kannada film industry, it was Om, an iconic movie directed by Upendra, that ushered in the genre of the full-fledged underworld mafia in 1995. Later, many Kannada films followed in its footsteps and protagonists brandishing machetes has become a common, successful formula for filmmakers. Though over a hundred such films have been made in the last 25 years, only a few like Jogi, Aa Dinagalu, Edegarike, and Kariya are noteworthy. Most of the Kannada films in this genre have glorified anti-social gangsters, paving the way for an unhealthy society.
Head Bush (Kannada)
Story: Agni Shridhar
Cast: Dolly Dhananjaya, Payal Rajput, Shruthi Hariharan, V Ravichandran, Vasishta N Simha, Yogesh, Raghu Mukherjee, Balu Nagendra, Sandy Master
Runtime: 144 minutes
Storyline: Based on Agni Sridhar’s memoir Dadagiriya Dinagalu, the gangster drama is the first of the two=part biopic of Bengaluru’s first underworld don, M P Jayaraj
Director Shoonya’s Head Bush is the latest release in the genre, and even the intriguing title has a point to make. It’s an intended wordplay on the popular coin-flipping game of ‘Head or Tails’; popular star V Ravichandran appears as a professor to explain this concept.
Head Bush is based on ‘Dadagiriya Dinagalu’, a memoir of former underworld don Agni Sreedhar. The film explores Bengaluru’s criminal underworld of the ‘70s, and centres on the life of M P Jayaraj, a noted don and a Robin Hood figure who enjoyed political patronage, besides enormous public support. Though marketed as an underworld subject, Head Bush is a wonderful political thriller.
The film opens with the then-Chief Minister, Devaraj Urs, forming the Indira Brigade to help oppressed communities, following the direction of his mentor, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. We are then introduced to Jayaraj as a young, violent boy who attacks a policeman. Much of the first half of the film is meant to introduce characters such as Devaraj, his son-in-law M D Nataraj, his daughter Nagaratna (named Rathnaprabha in the film), prominent politicians like R Gundu Rao, F M Khan, Jayaraj and his lieutenant Ganga, and Samson among others.
Head Bush takes a vital turn when differences crop up between Ganga and Jayaraj over the Karaga controversy, and Kotval Ramachanda, another intelligent underworld don who enjoys the support of Khan and Rao, enters the scene. Urs’ ambitious idea of the Indira Brigade takes a nose dive with the gang war between Ganga and Jayaraj, which ends with Jayaraj and his associates surrendering to the police after an attack on Ganga in the court hall in broad daylight.
It appears, because of Sridhar’s initiative, the film showcases the major developments in Bengaluru between 1974 and the early 80s, instead of becoming a mundane take on just gangsters It focuses on how a city is not built by politicians and officials alone, but by the common people, including prominent underworld characters. A bit more of a nudge, and Head Bush would have become a documentary. But the effective retelling of facts with the creative freedom exercised by the writer and the director, has resulted in the film becoming tolerable as an underworld film. It makes the audience understand what ailed Bengaluru at that point in time.
Exposing the underbelly of Bengaluru, it has political elements of betrayal, friendship, and love written from various perspectives. But, unfortunately, it turns out to glorify Dhananjaya as Jayaraj, and the other characters remain as caricatures without flesh and blood.
Because Agni Shridhar wrote the story, it has become almost necessary to compare Head Bush with Aa Dinagalu, which was also written by him. However, the former is nowhere close to the latter. While Aa Dinagalu was almost a personal film made on a small canvas, Head Bush is mounted on a bigger scale and the writer has adapted his writing to match the scale of the film with a stylised treatment. But the director Shoonya fails to capture the imagination and visual ideas, and neither the incidents (except Karaga episode) nor the characters create any impact on the audience.
However, Head Bush is a treat for fans of Dhananjaya, as the actor justifies his role with his signature style of acting. Actors Raghu Mukherjee and Shruthi Hariharan also meet the expectations of the audience to a certain level. Raghu, who essayed the character of Nataraj fills life into the character, because of his homework on the looks and body language of M D Nataraj.
Shruthi Hariharan essays the role of his wife Rathnaprabha (the character of Devaraj Urs’ daughter Nagarathna), who was an idealistic and righteous woman. Rathnaprabha is someone who believes in equality and walks the talk. Though she looks vulnerable, she is strong and brave. Shruthi carries the burden of such a multi-faced character with the greatest difficulty. Payal Malhotra also perfectly fits into the character of Jayaraj’s love interest.
While the film fails to transport the audience to the ‘70s Bengaluru — the blame of which should go to the director, art director, and cinematographer — it is important to remember that this is only the first of the two-part film. If they right their wrongs from this film, Head Bush 2 might turn out to be as good as an Aa Dinagalu.