White Guy Watches Bollywood

A random white guy engages with contemporary Indian cinema... one movie at a time

Telugu Movie Review: Rules Ranjann is an aggressively silly rom-com

Kiran Abbavaram and Neha Shetty star in the Telugu romantic comedy "Rules Ranjann," here reviewed by White Guy Watches Bollywood.

I hung in with Rules Ranjann for longer than it deserved my goodwill. There is something so off-the-wall and silly about the movie’s presentation that an open viewer has no choice but to play along at first. Especially due to what appears to be a topical setting/subject matter – a naïve tech worker trying to navigate his way up the corporate latter – I figured it had to be aiming for exaggerated satire. Tired of abuse from his Hindi-speaking colleagues in Mumbai, Tirupati transplant Mano Ranjann (Kiran Abbavaram) makes a power-play to reign over the entire office – his boss (Annu Kapoor) included – as a sort of makeshift dictator. He’s the first in and the last out, and nothing will escape his watchful eye, leading him to be known as Rules Ranjann.

In what initially feels like an exaggerated allegory on today’s crumbling social standards in both the workplace and off-the-clock, Ranjann’s control-freak nature seeps outside his 9-to-5 and into his (uneventful) personal life. Mercifully, Tollywood’s penchant for original music and likely a lacking budget spare us the needle drop of Dua Lipa’s “New Rules” that would have been inevitable in a Hollywood version of this story. But there’s still plenty of the track’s salacious spirit on display. A questionable co-director of B-grade films (played by Vennela Kishore) moves in across the hall from Ranjann, bringing with him a new lay every night, undoubtedly luring them with the promise of a future starring role in one of his movies. Ranjann has no tolerance for this scandalous behavior, so he does what any aggrieved neighbor would do: finds a way to get his new hallmate kicked to the curb.

Up to this point, there’s something morbidly fun about watching Ranjann’s psychotic rule-following behavior: he displays the kind of mania we typically associate with silver-screen serial killers, but you’ve never seen more of a square than this guy. Lead Kiran Abbavaram is pretty good at embracing the spirit of being a puritan antihero, too; it suits him far better than the bumbling reluctant hero he played earlier this year in the critically-panned Meter. Even though everything about the film (including Abbavaram’s performance) is orchestrated in a maximally ridiculous way, I figured there was a method to this madness, that it was trying to say something substantial about individual attempts to thwart rebellion in the workplace. But just before the halfway point, Neha Shetty enters the picture as the love interest, at which point I quickly realized I was giving its ambitions far too much credit.

Putting aside the ballsiness (or perhaps just incompetence) of the decision to not introduce its love interest until just before intermission, it becomes pretty clear from this point on that Rules Ranjann’s aims are no greater than those of the typical throwaway Telugu comedy. One day at the Metro station, Ranjann stumbles upon his mega-crush from college, Sana (Shetty), who doesn’t even know who he is. He finally gets up the courage to talk to her – after all, he is Rules Ranjann now (!) – which of course leads to a torrid 24-hour romance as he takes her around his faraway new home city. We know exactly where this is going. Suddenly, I felt like a fool for assuming Rules Ranjann was ever going to be a sophisticated satire on tech capitalism; the introduction of such a painfully conventional romance made clear that it was just another silly romantic comedy of modest ambitions from Tollywood. The over-the-top setup that had come before was just that: over-the-top – for stupid laughs, not intentionally exaggerated for the purposes of social commentary.

The movie doesn’t stop being aggressively dopey from there on out, but gone is any chance of this tone servicing something smarter or more subversive beneath the surface. Ranjann confesses to Sana that he pretty much watched every move she ever made in college – again, he has a lot of serial killer-ish attributes for a guy we’re supposed to sympathize with – and instead of being completely creeped out by this, she’s touched. This is a movie that thinks there’s a logical universe in which a woman would be charmed by a guy storing photos he covertly snapped of her on his phone.

But the film is even stupider when it comes to its plot: the interval cliffhanger is literally that Sana is late for her train home to Tirupati, and there isn’t enough time for Ranjann to clearly scream his phone number to her as it chugs away, so that they can meet up again. We’re supposed to buy this tragic separation – how could they possibly ever reunite now! – when just 20 minutes earlier, there’s a whole gag about how Ranjann tried to follow Sana hundreds of times on Instagram, but she blocked every new account he made. (Ah, yes, doesn’t that obsessive behavior just make you want him to get the girl!).

Needless to say, Ranjann spends the second half of the film enduring a series of mishaps as he tries to reunite with Sana and lock her down for marriage, each one sillier than the last. There are a few passable laughs along the way, but most land in a so-bad-it’s-good kind of way, especially when Ranjann inevitably must go back to Vennela Kishore’s evicted neighbor character for help. But the biggest problem with Ranjann’s entire romantic pursuit is that he’s not a character we want to root for at all, especially when it comes to his downright creepy obsession with Sana. He’s compelling as a sort of OCD antihero at the very beginning of the movie, but not as a likable ordinary guy going after his dream girl. As soon as the film asks for the audience’s genuine emotional investment, rather than our actively detached bemusement, it completely fails.

The production values are mostly competent and nothing more. There are four main songs – none of which are particularly memorable from a music or dance perspective, though the clear best is “Dhekho Mumbai,” ironically the one the producers saved last for release as a single. The production design, cinematography, and direction are all purely functional, while the editing leaves quite a bit of tightening to be desired, with the runtime a much-too-long 158 minutes.

While I cannot deny that there was a seed of something that I found compelling at the start of Rules Ranjann, it devolves into one of the more unpleasant romantic comedies of the year by the midpoint. After a poor first week at the box office, the film seems likely to be largely forgotten before long.

Rating: ½ (out of ★★★★★)

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