“Boy meets girl, boy chases after girl, girl says no, boy keeps pursuing girl, boy might get to save girl from villain, and girl eventually says yes” is a ubiquitous plot in mainstream Indian cinema. Even when the hero isn’t twice the age of his love object, it’s still creepy AF for its normalizing depiction of stalking=love.
This is what Eega (2012, dir. S. S. Rajamouli) seems to be in its first half hour. Bindu (Samantha Akkineni), an educational nonprofit staffer and miniature artist—so, a very good girl, in case you weren’t sure—is pursued by not one but two of such fellows: the older, rich, and violent Sudeep (Sudeep) and the more age-appropriate boy-next-door Jani (Nani), who is less nefarious but still refuses to give up after following her around for two years with no response.
Sudeep sets his sights on Bindu instantly when she comes to his office seeking donations for her charity. He provides some much-needed cash and starts joining in their work as a way to spend time with her. In the meantime, Bindu is softening towards Jani, and one night when her scooter has run out of gas, she summons him for help and decides isn’t so bad after all. By the end of their song-filled walk home, they’re in love. Sudeep is not the type to tolerate competitors, so he nabs Jani off the street outside Bindu’s house and kills him. As Jani fades, loving text messages from Bindu flood his inbox.
Ordinarily in Indian cinema, this turn of events would signal the halfway point of the film and would be followed by another favorite trope: the reincarnation of the hero. In addition to their resonance within a majority Hindu country, reincarnation plots can serve several other purposes that fall under the “more is more” philosophy of mainstream filmmaking. Stories vary in how much time passes between the soul’s lives and in how the different incarnations will be embodied.
Most often, filmmakers have actors play two characters for the price of one. When the hero reincarnates, it gives the actor additional canvases in which to demonstrate his heroicness, often including romantic fidelity across time. Author Sunny Singh points out that doubling an actor’s roles is also a way to satisfy or augment multiple facets of the star’s persona, like adding historical-ish martial arts sequences to accompany a more standard shootout or creating room to show off skills in contemporary dance that would look out of place in an earlier setting. Alternately, reincarnation is a way to add more star power, or at least faces, to a story. The same soul can be played by two different people, though my attempt to crowdsource a list of films that do this has yielded only a few results.
Reincarnation plots also expand time: showing more lives means using more time periods, with their related eye-candy of sets, costumes, and dance sequences. I can think of two hit Hindi films that kill of their hero by the midpoint and reincarnate him a generation later: Karz (1980) and Om Shanti Om (2007). Other films take bigger chronological leaps. Eega’s director S. S. Rajamouli made a Telugu-language blockbuster of this type a few years prior to Eega. Magadheera reincarnates four characters over a jump of several centuries: current-day characters realize that they’re caught in the consequences of historical events, and the film cuts back and forth between the two eras. The recent Hindi films Raabta and Ek Paheli Leela also follow this format. In Ek Paheli Leela, only the heroine is the same cast member in both eras, with different actors becoming her antagonists and love interests. A switch in casting is a more interesting way to handle this plot device, in my opinion: when two people don’t look alike, it’s harder for characters (and the audience) to figure out why there are similarities in knowledge, personality, or events.
Eega is unique in its combination of choices in how to treat its reincarnation plot. It is the only film I can think of in which the hero dies very early on and is reincarnated into a character who continues the story chronologically right where it left off. This is a feat Jani is uniquely qualified to do because of his reincarnated form as…a fly!
No need here to wait 20 years for a human child to grow into an adult capable of driving the plot and putting together clues about a previous identity! Within two weeks of his death, Jani has remembered his past trauma and has found Bindu and Sudeep. Taking care of unfinished business with both of them fills the rest of the runtime.
The film does not comment on whether being reincarnated as a pesky insect is a downgrade from being a human. The fly has at least as much, if not more, personality than Jani did, and instead of looking like a shaggy roadside Romeo, he vibrates with energy, emotion, and intellect. He’s charming and expressive in his own way, with bright eyes and jaunty legs. The animators do a fantastic job at giving him distinct textures and expressive gestures, and he ends up seeming as wide-eyed and communicative as a puppy.
The fly’s size is a weakness and a strength. His introduction is a spectacular sequence of him figuring out how to use his body, escaping birds and human footsteps, and impotently falling when he tries to ram Sudeep in the face. But as the film progresses, he learns what he can accomplish by being quick and almost undetectable.
Despite his inconsequential stature, Jani is now the opponent to Sudeep that his human version obviously wasn’t. The fly also grabs Bindu’s attention much faster than Jani did simply because even the most basic human gesture carried out by a fly is noteworthy.
The film centralizes revenge before it does much with the romance. The fly spends more time cleverly tormenting Sudeep than watching over Bindu. Maybe that’s because hovering and aggravating is more natural for a fly than showing affection at a scale humans could detect, but we also know that human Jani was very happy to spend ages just gazing at Bindu without any reaction or input from her.
This is where Eega’s creativity falls a short: like many far less inventive films, it’s actually about male characters despite a heterosexual romance stated as the cause of connection and conflict. Without giving too much away, know that the bond between Bindu and Jani is reactivated, but it becomes as much a tool of revenge as valued for its own sake. I don’t think Eega ever claimed to be a love story, but it is tiresome to see yet another film use its one major female character as an excuse for men to be violent, especially when it’s doing such exciting things with its male leads. Bindu does at least get to contribute actively in the revenge story. Her unique knowledge of working in miniature is very handy in planning with and equipping the fly.
Even with this script shortcoming, Eega is such an imaginative film. All the bombast of a film hero is put in a tiny package, and because audiences have been trained to accept superhuman feats as standard in countless other films, the ridiculous concept feels utterly natural. I’m not well versed in the physiology of diptera, but the writers pretty consistently have the fly do things a fly can do—and be crazy-making in a way that only a tiny relentless pest could be. This strategy also gives wide scope for the villain to lose his marbles, which he does magnificently. Sudeep’s nastiness is established immediately in the film— gun collection, red eyes, ruthless obsessions—and watching him slowly lose his grip on everything in his life is a joy.
The fly turns Sudeep’s rage against him, and it’s the best possible weapon with the best possible results. In Eega, stalking=love is balanced by stalking=death.
The Hindi dub of Eega, called Makkhi, is currently on Netflix instant. Director S. S. Rajamouli’s recent monster hit two-part historical epic Bāhubali (trailer) and Bāhubali 2 (trailer) are also available there (in your choice of three Indian languages with English subtitles) and should not be missed.