The finale will be crisp and short, somebody says in the last act. That’s a lie.
The hero has no game plan and no strategy, and is forging ahead on sheer will power. This bit is true.
There is a lot to take in over the 166-minute duration of Baadshah Pehlwaan. There is the bond between trainer Sarkar (Suniel Shetty) and the street kid Krishna, whom Sarkar rears as his son and moulds into a champion wrestler. There is the rivalry with the mean-minded feudal lord Rana (Sushant Singh), who behaves as though democracy has not touched this corner of Karnataka and who wins every single match he organises by rigging the results. There is Krishna’s love for Rukmani (Akanksha Singh), which distracts him from his goal of emerging as the top Indian wrestler. Then there is the nasty boxer Tony (Kabir Duhan Singh), who is so vicious in the ring that his own coach (Sharath Lohitasva) abandons him.
Even as director S Krishna struggles to bring these plot strands together, he complicates things for himself and viewers by introducing another element – Krishna’s dedication to promoting a sporting culture among children. Krishna performs many contortions in the arena, but his exertions are no match for the attempts of screenwriters S Krishna, Madhoo and DS Kannan to transform a movie about a wrestler into a dramatic statement about the need to fund sporting talent.
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If Krishna is too saintly and one-note for his own good, blame it on his name. The Hindi dubbed version of the Kannada movie Pailwaan coats a routine sports saga with mythological hues. Krishna’s battle to maintain his supremacy is accompanied by religious chants that are loud enough to be heard all the way in the Great Beyond.
Krishna’s vow to his guru Sarkar, his self-imposed exile, and his numerous near-miraculous recoveries similarly have a touch of the divine. There is even a cosmic element in the scene when a mace flies through the air like the demigod Thor’s magical hammer and unerringly finds its way to Krishna.
Stripped of its mythological pretensions, Baadshah Pehlwaan is an ordinary and familiar showcase of its leading man’s physical prowess. Kannada movie star Sudeep is on a long list of Indian movie stars who have taken to the gym in their later years and emerged with bodies that would befit their younger selves. Sudeep looks the part as the super-fit and barely-clad wrestler, and his entirely physical performance enlivens his wrestling matches and the boxing bouts in the latter half of the narrative.
Krishna’s leap of faith is matched by the casting of its principal actors. A 13-year age gap separates Sudeep and Suniel Shetty, who plays his foster father, in the real world. Shetty, who has been playing age-appropriate roles, also flexes his muscles at one point, but mostly spends the movie in benign and paternalistic mode.
Given the number of plot strands, it’s hardly surprising that Baadshaah Pehlwaan takes far too long to state the obvious. The overstretched and strictly-for-fans final act leaves Krishna bruised and bloodied, and he isn’t the only one wondering how he got there.