Junglee (2019) Review!!!

Synopsis – The story revolves around a vet, who on his homecoming to his father’s elephant reserve, encounters and fights an international poachers racket.

My Take – Nearly two decades ago, animals based films were quite a rage in India, with some hitting the mark with their staple story line about how a man’s greed for money destroys forest and affects the animal kingdom, while the rest just got too screechy with their emotional overtones and fantasy elements.

Now nearly 30 years later, we are back into familiar territory with struggling action hero Vidyut Jammwal in the lead, with American director Chuck Russell (The Mask, The Scorpion King) at the helm, marking his first foray into Bollywood. While the promotional material made it seem like an Indian take on ‘The Protector’ starring Tony Jaa, the execution is simply but subpar.

Though elephants have been delightful protagonists in previous Hindi films one would be forgiven for expecting this film to showcase more pachyderm playfulness, but it is the clichéd treatment by the director, along with wafer-thin and amateurish plot that brings the whole point about the peaceful co-existence of man and beast seem quite diminishing.

While it can be considered that a compelling story was never the motive here, as films in India especially the ones targeting children, seem to think that message needs to be hammered into them as they are unable to grasp any nuance. Here, this film too follows the same playbook and is too much in love with its leading man for it to have any meaningful impact. On his part, Vidyut Jamawal at least makes the action sequences electrifying.

The story follows Raj Nayar (Vidyut Jammwal), a veterinary doctor who lives lush life in the city Mumbai. Unknown to most, Raj spend his earlier years growing up in Chandrika, an elephant conservation center deep in the forest, run by his parents. However following the death of his mother, Raj left his grieving father (Thalaivasal Vijay) known as Baba to everyone, in charge and moved to the city.

With her 10 year death anniversary coming up, Raj decides to make one last visit to honor his mother’s death. While his equation with his father remains unchanged, Raj is glad to reunite with his childhood friends Shankara (Pooja Sawant), now a mahout and Dev (Akshay Oberoi), now a forest ranger, but is mostly excited to spend time with the handsome tusker, Bhola, who has now grown up to become the massive leader of his herd.

Also hovering around the sanctuary is Meera (Asha Bhat), a zealous journalist who is doing a story on Baba and his elephants for her online wildlife portal. However, unknown to them, a black market dealer has commissioned Keshav (Atul Kulkarni), a hunter who likes spouting shlokas from the Gita, to poach Bhola and bring back his prized and precious ivory.

As a result, an emotional homecoming turns into a dangerous and violent revenge saga where the man-animal conflict and greed turn into a battle between good people versus very bad ones. The message is spelt out – stop buying ivory and stop supporting trade in ivory.

Here, director Chuck Russell has taken up a worthy cause of how man’s greed doesn’t stop and how majestic animals like tuskers are killed mercilessly just for ivory. Protect animals, save the elephants is the primary message that the film sends across and it does so in an action-packed way. The film also reiterates that if we pledge to stop buying ivory products, it will prevent poachers from indulging in this illegal trade. True to its theme, the film transports you to the calm of a jungle, shot in the beautiful locales of an elephant reserve in Thailand.

However, there is nothing here that suggests that a foreigner has made it except, perhaps, the fact that the film is beautifully mounted, and director Russell’s uncontained love for Indian aesthetics seeps through in several scenes — rangoli, including on elephants, diyas, gajras, long strings of white flowers and yellow marigold, Lord Ganesha, and the graceful, hypnotic movements of Kalaripayattu are captured lovingly.

Even, Jammwal uses the film as a platform to showcase his combat skills as the rest of the film fills the screen-time with elephants and their antics. The rather simplistic message of saving forests from being destroyed by human greed is conveyed with all the subtlety of a herd of marauding elephants. The scenes between Jammwal and elephants of various sizes are the best thing here, after its plea to halt the poaching of the gentle giants.

Through the bond Raj’s father, Raj, Shankara and others share with the elephants, the film does touch a nerve and your heart lurches as you see the poachers greedily and heartlessly attack these majestic creatures. While some of the actions of the elephants seem a bit rehearsed for the camera, director Russell’s film gives a fair idea of the human-animal conflict that regularly makes the headlines.

Unfortunately, while the film’s story (by Rohan Sippy, Charudutt Acharya, Umesh Padalkar and Ritesh Shah) has been promoted as a Jammwal versus poachers hunting magnificent tuskers for their mercenary gains tale, it takes a lifetime to get to the point. And once the second half begins, the story goes awry. Logic is thrown out of sight and the characters lazily slip into stereotypes.

This was a story that could have been a contemporary, entertaining and even informative. Instead what we have is a labored narrative, which does little justice to the premise it sets up – the fact that animal poaching in Indian forests is a grim reality. It seemed like the action thriller had the right intention, but much is lost between intent and execution. For example, right after one fight scene, the film conjures up a marzipan shaded, bling Ganpati apparition in the middle of a temple-cum-training ground in the forest. It’s a ‘what the’ kind of moment, following which the film just lazily treads on till the end credits roll in.

As I mentioned above, here, Vidyut Jammwal is the only one who matters – the rest of the cast are merely there to make him look good. Jammwal, the rare exception who can match Tiger Shroff on the action front is flawless as far as the action is concerned. The jaw-dropping, lethal action scenes he portrays on screen and his mastery in martial arts puts him at par with the finest action heroes across the globe. Unfortunately, the film devotes an endless amount of time establishing the hero as a child of the forest with multiple close-ups and action shots, Jammwal’s forte.

The confident female debutantes, Asha Bhat and Pooja Sawant make the best of their sidekick roles but sadly the script offers them very little. Atul Kulkarni, an excellent actor, is completely wasted here, while Thalaivasal Vijay, Akshay Oberoi and Makarand Deshpande are genuinely fine. On the whole, ‘Junglee’ is an underwhelming entertainer, which excels in its action sequences but suffers due to its haphazard and clichéd storytelling.

Directed – Chuck Russell

Starring – Vidyut Jammwal, Asha Bhat, Vishwanath Chatterjee

Rated – PG13

Run Time – 115 minutes

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