An ineffective comedy that leaves you yawning
It takes a while for you to grasp that Pokkiri Raja isn’t a serious film. It is even irreverential in parts: its villain has no problems smoking in a temple, its hero and heroine are in a gag that parodies divine possession… you get the idea. It all begins predictably though, when it sets about establishing its three main archetypal masala-movie characters: Sanjeevi (Jiiva), a hero who can’t hold a job for too long; Sunitha (Hansika), an effervescent heroine who takes up a social campaign against public urination; and Guna (Sibiraj), a painfully one-note gangster-villain, who informs very early that “Nyaayam dharmam paaka naan hero illa; naan villain.” It is only later on that you realise that Pokkiri Raja is a surreal comedy ineffectively shoehorned into a masala template.
You see, Sanjeevi keeps getting the pink slip on account of his serial yawning. You’re shown that his yawns have the power to put entire offices to sleep, and later when they are shown gaining in strength, are able to wipe out restaurant tables and even shatter people’s cooling glasses. But there’s no time in which to milk the bizarreness of this all for humour—not for too long anyway—as the film also has to do justice to Hansika’s casting by showing you random duets (one song goes, ‘Bubbly baby nee dhaan di’, I suspect in ode to the quintessential Tamil heroine), and Sibi’s casting by showing you Guna’s extremely unfunny antics with his side-kicks. A braver film would have trusted the outlandishness of its universe more. In that sense, Pokkiri Raja is as wildly inconsistent as the strength of its protagonist’s yawns, which is sometimes powerful enough to push an overweight woman (elephant trumpeting for background music) off her chair, but sometimes, only strong enough to lift a nurse’s skirt.
More hateful than those bad jokes are the slo-mo entry and exit scenes for Sibiraj throughout the film. It’s never clear if director Ramprakash Rayappa is going for a menacing villain or a funny villain, for Guna is neither.
Every time he is happy, he breaks into a bizarre jig, which ends with him shaking his posterior at the camera. I really missed somebody like Goundamani each time Guna did this ridiculous dance. The scene gets perfectly set up for him to appear from nowhere and land a well-aimed kick at the ridiculous villain’s bottom.
Almost all of Guna’s gags are uninventive at best, and humourless at worst. When he temporarily loses his eyesight, his henchmen treat him with irreverence. This includes one of them shaking his, again, posterior at Guna’s face. In a better film, we could have analysed what these repeated booty shakes represent. Is the director being cheeky? Is he shaking status quo? There’s a Raja Chinna Roja-like twist to this entire set-up when Guna, even after getting his eyesight back, pretends he’s blind. I wish I could say that it leads to much hilarity.
There are one or two laugh-out-loud moments, but a premise like this should offer so much more. For instance, Sanjeevi, when confronted by the uncomfortable truth that his yawns are gaining in strength, is forced to plan his life around his yawns. Why not dwell on this? Why not create more gags around how his everyday life is affected? Why even bother to justify the origins of his ‘superpower’ with a wholly dispensable animated flashback sequence? What’s the point of thinking up an unconventional protagonist, if you can’t dare to use him in an unconventional template?
As you can imagine, there’s a whole lot of yawning in Pokkiri Raja, and thanks to how contagious they are, you should expect to yawn a lot. But unfortunately, that’s not the only reason you’ll be yawning.