Billa, had it reached the right audience at the right time, could have been immortalized as a cult hit in the vein of Kung Pow: Enter The Fist. It is badly written, badly acted, badly budgeted, bad to look at, and incredibly entertaining. It is fueled by the worst examples of Indian film industry nepotism. It is the platonic ideal of what would happen if you gave a roomful of eleven year old boys the budget of a Lifetime Original and said “Make an action movie about the most badass gangster ever”. And they took that money and made Billa (2009), an Indian Telugu-language action-thriller that is the sixth (SIXTH!) remake of the 1978 Amitabh Bachchan hit Don.
The movie opens by introducing us to the titular gangster Billa (Prabhas, a lifetime’s distance away from Baahubali), following him around on a typical day on the job of being a Badass. Straight out the gate we have helicopters, slow motion walking, guns-in-pants (the expected security goon pat-down reveals six guns stashed in various locations on his body — ohoh, missed the pistol up the sleeve!). The job goes bad, and Billa uses a swig off a flask and a cigarette lighter to blow a fireball in his enemy’s face and make his escape in a helicopter. Cue the montage and hero theme:
HE’S THE MAN IN ACTION! HE’S ALL REAL NO FICTION! RIPPING ALL HIS FOES TO SUBMISSION! IT’S BIHHH-LAAAAAAAAH!
The movie really, really, really likes Billa. The movie is horny as hell for Billa. The first ten minutes or so are just a montage of Billa looking at guns, boxing shirtless, wearing the finest polyester suits that can be purchased on Amazon with a quantity discount, posing next to various boats, small planes, and luxury cars, and walking in slow motion with his squad of sexy henchpeople in matching horrible clothes and sunglasses. Vladmir Putin’s shirtless bear wrestling excursions have nothing on this guy.
Eventually we cut to the Malaysian police, where we are introduced to ACP Krishnamurthy (Krishnam Raju, whom we will expand on in a moment) and his partner Adithya, running down the standard Bond villain profile of Billa and his cronies – Lesa, Ranjith, Vikram, Vicki, Mark, Brittany, and Steve. Oh Steve, how did you get yourself into this mess? We also learn that there’s an even bigger crime lord named Devil that Billa is smuggling weapons to, but of course Devil’s true identity is a mystery. ACP has dedicated his life to tracking down Billa, although we never learn if there’s a personal reason why. He just wants that dastardly Billa gone. I should probably take a moment to point out that veteran actor Krishnam Raju is Prabhas’s paternal uncle, and the older brother of the film’s producer, Suryanarayana Raju, who happens to be Prabhas’s father. Mmm, smell that nepotism.
Billa was the last film that Suryanarayana Raju produced before he died in 2010, and it’s no wonder that as soon as Prabhas was no longer obligated to be in his family’s shitty films he started to be in movies that won awards. Anyway, this scene makes it clear that ACP suspects his partner Adithya has something to do with Devil in such a blatantly obvious way that there’s clearly no reason to actually suspect him.
Back to Billa on his day off, and we cut to him shooting arrows into a target on a beach while his sexy cronies stand around in what I think is supposed to be sexy-cool bad guy indifference but just looks like boredom. Given that the majority of this movie was filmed in Malaysia, everyone is probably about three seconds away from keeling over in the heat. Those polyester suits don’t breathe! To shake things up a bit, Billa shoots an arrow into a henchman’s back and reveals that the henchman was double-timing him. He then delivers just one of many terrible, terrible attempts at an English catchphrase: “Trust no one. Kill everyone. Be only one.” His other catchphrases include a petulant “Can-can”, when people tell him he can’t do something, and numerous utterly shameless uses of “Hasta la vista, baby”. This scene introduces us to Vikram (Subbaraju, also a lifetime away from Baahubali), Billa’s right-hand henchman for the time being. It’s extremely obvious that Vikram has some plans that don’t include being next in line for Billa’s target practice. Gosh, it must be so lonely to be a cool guy like Billa.
Later we get into some steamy scenes with Billa and his girlfriend Lesa (Namitha Vankawala), in which he pulls a gun on her while he’s enjoying a bath and makes her test her loyalty with Russian roulette, which she gamely goes along with because that Billa booty is worth it.
I don’t read too much into subtitles because I know there’s always a lot that gets lost in translation, but sometimes they just come through for you.
We cut away from Lesa interrupting Billa’s me-time to Vikram and his girlfriend Priya meeting secretly in the middle of a mall. Oh my god, why do Indian movies love malls so much? Vikram tells Priya that he’s trying to leave Billa’s gang and they’re going to escape together in the morning. The scene is so rushed and robotic that it takes exactly sixty seconds for Vikram to break this to Priya, Priya to look mildly afraid and voice some doubts, and Vikram to reassure and hug Priya before he runs off with a curt “Bye”, like he’s hanging up the phone. It’s almost masterful in how terrible it is. Later that night, when the squad (the Billettes?) are all hanging out on top of a roof because that’s what cool people do, a goon (perhaps Steve) breaks it to Billa that Vikram is leaving. Billa then somehow manages to grab Vikram’s getaway car with a crane, have a little heart-to-heart with Vikram inside the car because every employee loves an exit interview, and then walk away as the car explodes. So much for Vikram.
Billa and Lesa shake off the loss of their henchman by going to a club to do some business with a gangster named Rashid and his henchman Jimmy. Jimmy is the best. Jimmy yells all of his lines in English extremely loudly and has no concept of how they should actually sound. We’ll get back to Jimmy later. Billa receives this very seductive secret message from a hot woman at the bar:
And this harridan just happens to be Priya, who puts on the film’s first full-fledged dance number complete with multiple costume changes from David’s Bridal evening gown to David’s Bridal cocktail dress to inexplicable long sweater and denim shorts, which does the trick as she finally gets Billa to leave the club with her (right in front of Lesa!), and clearly some police hijinks are afoot as she’s tipped off the cops. The song isn’t great and the dancing is just adequate, but the looks that Lesa shoot this brazen hussy and her girl squad are amazing.
After some implied offscreen boning (he was really nice to let her take a shower afterwards), the police show up and Priya triumphantly informs Billa that this was her doing, as revenge for what he did to Vikram. So if I’m following right, Priya somehow found out within minutes of her man’s car blowing up that he was gone, and then she did what any woman in love would do: put on your two best dresses from the David’s Bridal Bridesmaid Bonanza sample sale and seduce your boyfriend’s boss with a sexy eight-woman dance number before turning him in. Femme Fatale 103 passed with flying colors, Priya. As they parse out the betrayals between them, the subtitles give us this gift:
Billa then throws Priya out of his car and into traffic with a cold “Hasta la vista, baby”, and they cut to Interpol. The head of Interpol is kind of a dick, and he won’t get off ACP’s back for the numerous times he’s let Billa get away. ACP promises to beef up his efforts to get to Billa’s inner circle.
Enter Maya (Anushka Shetty, who also went on to star in the Baahubali movies), an assassin who has apparently been told that she is in The Matrix, impressing the Billa squad with her trenchcoat and sunglasses and her obvious wire-work. It’s really not hard to get into this gang as long as you have awful sunglasses and a taste for extremely cheap fake leather. The gang enthusiastically introduces her to the boss as “Lady Billa”, which Billa concedes to with no objection and dismisses with “Hasta la vista, baby”. Then comes the obligatory backstory flashback that reveals that Maya is Vikram’s sister, who has sworn revenge for the deaths of Vikram and Priya! Man, what a dedicated support network Vikram had.
Maya gets right to work with an attempt to murder Billa in his extremely classy infinity pool, in which she shows off her “Billa” lower back tattoo and everyone goes swimming while wearing their sunglasses. She’s blocked by a phone call from Devil and an extremely pissy Lesa, who is probably still smarting over that whole Priya thing. During his call with Devil, Billa makes his famous declaration that he is “not a small fish. Billa – killer fish.”
ACP finally shows up at one of Billa’s many, many gangster meetings and they have what feels like a twenty minute conversation in which Billa attempts to sell him guns and tells him that his guns suck and blabbers on for a while about world economies or something before escaping out of an armored truck in a Ferrari. Prabhas and Krishnam Raju are clearly having a great time in this scene together, and it’s fun to watch them go back and forth. A pretty good car chase follows through what looks like a muggy and overcast day on the back roads of Indonesia, and curiously the director includes a shot of monkeys just chilling out on the side of the road in the middle of the action, like I wasn’t invested enough already and now I need to worry about a police car flipping over into the air and ruining this nice monkey picnic.
The chase continues as Billa drives the car with his feet while standing through the Ferrari’s sunroof and shooting down a helicopter (you read that right), and ACP gets a shot on Billa before a car that they don’t even try to make resemble a Ferrari (or even footage from the same film) plunges off a bridge. But Billa somehow survived all this and ends up surprising ACP in the back of his car, saving his last strength to give a monologue full of his stupid catch phrases, going on and on about his shitty childhood and how he’s an emperor and god damn just die already.
So Billa finally dies, and his final words are “Hasta la vista”, delivered with the gravitas of Hamlet bleeding out on the floor of Elsinore. ACP, being the best cop ever, straight-up decides to just bury Billa right there and enlists the help of his informant, Shankar, because you know what they say – friends help you move, best friends help you move bodies. Shankar, who runs a roadside tourist bar, is played by Ali, a spectacularly unfunny Indian comedian who seems to be in every single Indian movie that Brahmanandam, another spectacularly unfunny Indian comedian, is not already in. Ali asks to take a look at Billa before he goes into the ground and discovers – oh my! – that Billa happens to look just like a guy from his hometown! What are the chances! Golly! So get ready for EXTREME TONAL SHIFT as the second half of the movie introduces you to…Ranga.
“Hariloranga Hari” is the best song of the movie. Maybe I’m just a sucker for a singing dead fish and brazen attacks on deity figures. Maybe I like Prabhas way more when he’s playing a small-town rube with fast feet and a heart of gold, which is a role he can play in his sleep. We are now introduced to the brightly colored world of Swami Ranga, a petty thief from a town called Vizag who curses the invention of ATM machines because it means people carry less cash on them for him to steal. It seems like this town only has about a thousand people in it at maximum, and they’re all singing about what a loveable scoundrel he is, which I guess means that everyone probably knows Ranga is pickpocketing them but they don’t care, because he’s hot? Ranga is also supporting two street urchins and paying for their school expenses with his loot. Maybe the people of Vizag know this and just let him steal their money because they know it’s going to support urchins. Ranga is adamant that the children become a doctor and an engineer, because what kind of Indian parental figure would he be if he wasn’t putting unrealistic expectations on his kids?
Shankar takes Ranga to ACP, where ACP convinces him to become a stand-in for Billa while he figures out who Devil is. Ranga brings up his responsibility to his urchins, and in response ACP literally buys their way into a good school because what even is morality with this guy? ACP even takes in the kids to live with his wife and daughter, which is not remotely appropriate given the circumstances, but what a hero. Ranga, touched and clearly not the type to ask a lot of important questions, agrees to become Billa. One training montage and a pair of sunglasses later, he’s ready. They stage a press conference and fake capturing Billa, in which he is diagnosed with amnesia by The Worst Doctor Ever, who without even waiting for him to wake up just says “I think he has memory loss”.
Meanwhile, back at Villa Billa, everyone’s been sitting around sexily fuming in their unbreathable suits for a month or two when they get the news that Billa’s back, so Maya in full Matrix mode goes out and gets him back.
ACP gets yelled at by the Interpol guy again for being so shitty at his job and letting Billa get away. Everyone gives Adithya the stink-eye again because the poor man can’t catch a break. Meanwhile, back at Billa’s place his goons try to prepare a welcome back for Ranga-As-Billa, fully buying that he’s lost his memory, and being surprisingly gentle and patient about it. If this was just a drama about a gangster losing his memory and the struggle of his crime family to adjust to life with his injury and recovery, I would totally watch that. Ranga and ACP have a secret meeting in Billa’s private sauna to catch up (which apparently ACP just knows how to get to??), but the real beauty is the movie trying to convince us that this portly old man in a bright white bathrobe, just walking through the frame, can just disappear in and out of places like a ninja.
Ranga manages to successfully pull off a meeting with Billa’s gangster BFF Rashid and his right hand man Jimmy, who we met earlier in the club scene. Jimmy, a particularly ebullient criminal, greets Ranga with, and I quote, “HEY BILLA! YOU, MAN! HOW ARE YOU, MY LION! HOW ARE YOU, MAN?! HEY! BILLA YOU CHANGED! YOU CHANGED BILLA! WHERE’S THE PUNCH MAN!” referring to the fact that Billa would always give him a manly punch him in the stomach whenever they met before. Ranga obligingly gives a little punch. All is smoothed over. Queue the Billa fight song and the posing in front of helicopters, Ranga has successfully become Billa.
Ranga is given the task of hacking into Billa’s computer to download information on Devil for ACP. It turns out that Billa’s password was, and I’m serious, BILLA. Lesa, her hair flying around her face from some unseen gale-force wind that only she can harness, attempts to distract Ranga for some sexy business, which transitions into Lesa’s song, which is so bad that I don’t even want to share it here. You can go find it on your own.
Ranga meets up with Jimmy again on gangster business and remembers to punch him in the tummy this time, which Jimmy responds to with a cheerful, childlike “YAAY!” – I told you, Jimmy is the best. I also told you that a group of eleven year olds made this film. Maya, for some reason completely believing that Ranga is Billa even though she is ostensibly the smart one in this movie, finally seizes her chance to avenge Priya and Vikram. Ranga comes clean to her on what’s happening, with ACP’s help, during a three-way gun standoff.
This immediately gives Ranga license to start hitting on Maya hardcore, and we transition into a sexy fencing duel in which Lesa makes it clear that she’s not giving up her man without a fight. Lesa then listens in on a conversation between Ranga and ACP and finally figures it out. I feel really bad for Lesa. She doesn’t know that her boyfriend’s dead and has been replaced by some other guy. She just wants her man back. She can handle Billa’s dalliances with other women, but there’s not enough glaring and seductively offering drinks that can bring back her Billa from the dead, and his double’s been a real dick to her since he came back with fake amnesia. The confrontation doesn’t go very well, and Ranga accidentally shoots Lesa. Which he dwells on for about ten seconds, because we have another song to transition into.
It’s hard to argue with that shredding guitar riff. So I guess we the audience are supposed to be cheering for Ranga now? Are we happy that he’s settling into this hardcore murdering gangster thing really well? Shouldn’t we be thinking about poor dead Lesa? Shouldn’t we be really worried about this? I mean, he’s made it, he’s got a backup dance team of waifish white women, which is Indian film parlance for You Made It (trust me on this).
Meanwhile, the police are about to raid Ranga’s coming out party when ACP gets a phone call from his very wife and family, which now includes Ranga’s urchins in case you forgot. It’s ACP’s birthday, and for some reason they’re throwing him a birthday party without him at home, and he keeps trying to get everyone off the phone call while his stupid family passes the phone from family to family member, each one saying “Happy birthday!” while he begs them to hang up, somehow physically incapable of hanging up the phone himself and apologizing later, this happens four freaking times in a row and it’s funnier every time. The family then launches into a tuneless repetition of HAPPY BIRTHDAY TOO YOOOU, HAPPY BIRTHDAY TOO YOOOU, HAPPY BIRTHDAY TOO YOOOOU, as the bullets rain down on him from an offscreen assailant and his family can’t hear the sound of gunshots over the phone because they’re too busy singing HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOOOOU like a bunch of idiots. ACP’s death scene is inter-cut with scenes of his family throwing glitter in the air and singing as he sinks to the ground. It is pure gold, I tell you.
Without ACP around to screw everything up and prevent the police from doing their jobs, Ranga gets caught and tries to convince Interpol of what’s actually happening. The film makes sure to show lots of scenes of Adithya looking super sketchy and hiding evidence because it desperately wants us to believe that Adithya is Devil when he’s clearly not. Ranga breaks out of jail and meets up with Maya, where they share a smooch that does nothing to dissuade me that this movie was written and directed by someone who firmly believes that girls have cooties.
This transitions in “Bommali”, the last song in the movie. It’s notable for a few things – showing that Anushka looks really cute with bangs, and a dance move out of giving shapely women a wedgie with their ill-fitting pants.
It must be seen to be believed. If I don’t put that much nitpicking into subtitles normally, I’m even less picky about subtitles for musical numbers, but I have to point out that the girl’s part in the chorus of this song translates, per subtitles, to “MARRY ME – MY LIFE IS EMPTY”. Which is just, come on. Maya’s hero Trinity would never ever say that. As usual with Indian movies, the sexual subtext is expressed with dance numbers instead of face-smooshing, so they get pretty physical here. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but it is fun to watch when the people dancing actually show some chemistry between them. Anushka can clearly dance well, and Prabhas is surprisingly lithe for someone built like Troy Polamalu. That everyone is dressed like they’re the hottest Finnish pop group of 1997 is another story.
Ranga’s now drunk over his grief for ACP and stumbling around the streets, where he runs into a similarly drunk Shankar. Shankar takes Ranga to his bar and reveals that he’s been keeping Billa’s body in his freezer this whole time. Was he just stepping over Billa’s corpse whenever he needed to go in the back and get more ice? How lax are the restaurant health inspectors in Malaysia, anyway? Ranga is shook by this, since ACP never actually told him what the deal was with Billa’s body, and decides to turn himself in to Interpol. He meets up with Interpol guy whose name I can’t be bothered to look up at this point, and it is revealed that – no way – Interpol Guy is Devil! You mean it was never Adithya, no matter how much the movie blatantly tried to make you think it was? I don’t believe it! Actually I don’t really care, because this whole Devil thing was by far the least interesting part of this movie. Some half-decent stunts and fighting later, Ranga finds Adithya and they work out a plan together. That plan amounts to Weekend At Billa’s, Tollywood-style, as Ranga puts on the clothes that Billa’s corpse was wearing (EWW) and stages Billa’s body to look like his, effectively convincing all of the incredibly stupid criminals around them that Billa has now killed Ranga and Billa’s back in charge.
Rashid and Jimmy show up for their meeting with Devil, and it’s suddenly clear that Devil is not actually very good at this crime lord face-to-face thing. He’s more of a menacing conference call guy. Rashid only wants to do business with his buddy Billa because he doesn’t believe that Interpol Guy is actually Devil. Devil has a crisis of confidence and ducks into his car to think for a minute (I’m not kidding). Ranga-as-Billa shows up for the meeting and everyone’s suddenly so much happier, because everyone just loves Billa so much. How could you not? He’s so good at exiting planes and walking in slow motion!
They have a nice little sit-down in the middle of an airplane hangar and do their criminal business for a bit, then Rashid gives him a big hug goodbye and gets aboard his private plane full of nefariously-purchased Russian explosives. Devil then attempts to kill Ranga, still convinced that he’s Billa, even though I have to believe that you don’t become a high-ranking Interpol guy if you’re anywhere near this stupid.
The grand finale fight scene commences. I’m disappointed to say that it’s mostly just adequate punch-and-kick combat, give or take a few backflipping baddies, and it doesn’t really showcase the truly batshit insane ending fight gimmicks that I’ve come to really expect from Indian action movies. There are no mask reveals, no cars leapfrogging over helicopters, no eight-minute flashbacks, no Incredible Hulk-esque muscle flexing out of shirts, you get the idea. The plane full of explosives doesn’t even blow up. Adithya shows up with the rest of Interpol and shoots Devil down, where he displays some very sexy bullet-riddled writhing around of the kind much mocked in Tropic Thunder, and that’s the end of him.
We’ve finally reached the end, where Ranga and Maya and pals are now settled back in Vizag. Ranga, that rascal, reveals that he’s stolen four suitcases full of money from Billa and plans to use that to open a school. That little rascal. We have no idea what happened to his urchins and ACP’s family after ACP was killed, by the way, and the movie makes no effort to follow up on that. Ranga’s moving on. The movie ends on a cringey gag with Ranga donning Billa’s sunglasses and saying “I WILL BE BACK”, apparently in the spirit of pretending to be a beloved gangster with an endless supply of shitty English action-movie catchphrases.
So, that’s Billa. I couldn’t find any information on the film’s budget compared to its box office, so it’s hard to determine whether or not it was a hit. It certainly seems to hold a place in the heart of fans, and it was an stepping stone for the actors who later went on to be in one of the biggest Indian movies ever made. Is it justified to write over 4,000 words about this unarguably terrible Tollywood film that will inevitably be eclipsed by the seventh, eighth, ninth remake? Is it worth the two hours and 29 minutes of your time to watch this movie for yourself and confirm that I’m not making up anything I put into this painstakingly detailed recap? Yes, and yes. Because as many times as I’ve seen this movie and pulled it apart, I still laugh at the bizarrely innocent dialogue, the terrible English delivery, the scene where ACP dies solely because he was too polite to hang up the phone, the random monkeys, the terrible kissing, and the dance move inspired by pulling up a woman’s pants. Sometimes you don’t want a nuanced, well-plotted, well-acted action movie. Sometimes you just want Billa. Hasta la vista, baby.
Screencaps mostly from the iDream Telugu Movies channel on YouTube. This movie is also available on Amazon Prime.
A gazillion thanks to Annukai for letting me take over WTF Asia for this week, and please give him a lot of props for doing this feature every single week – it’s a shitload of work to recap movies that average nearly three hours and still make them sound not only coherent, but something worth watching.
WTF ASIA 53: Hospitalité (Japan: 2011, approx. 95 minutes)
WTF ASIA 54: In the Mood for Love (Hong Kong: 2000, approx. 98 minutes)
Available online and through Kanopy