Cast: Varun Tej, Aditi Rao Hydari, Lavanya Tripathi
Director: Sankalp Reddy
This review has spoilers from the movie.
The film begins with ISC (Indian Space Centre), the fictitious stand-in for ISRO, panicking over one of its satellites. “Mihira” starts to malfunction and even though it is old and dispensable, the strong probability of it colliding with other working satellites makes it a global liability. Riya, a systems engineer, who is training in Russia as an EVA specialist for a crucial upcoming mission, is rushed back home to help. On arrival, she reminds the team of Dev, the only man alive who knows the satellite’s code well enough to rectify it. She drives to Rameswaram in a vintage Ford to ask Dev for his help. Why is Dev in Rameswaram? Why the odd choice of an old car for a long road trip? Aditi looked picturesque doing it, but it is enough? As we go further, more questions come up. Why is the team overlooking a space mission consisted of exclusively Telugu-speaking people? Why is the national flag cropping up in weird places and awkward frames? Shallow elegance and misplaced pride are two very hard things to pull off together for any filmmaker.
Anthariksham 9000 Kmph is about Dev, a surprisingly impractical and emotional scientist who is more driven by patriotism than scientific curiosity—Varun Tej is perfect for this stoic-looking, mulish gentleman whose towering profile does most of the work. He calls the satellite he helmed, Viprayan, his baby. Due to an unfortunate event, he loses everything he holds close to his heart, including his baby, and he goes away. Even though he comes back after Riya’s request, he has other plans. The rest of the story unfolds through him and his need to find closure and lost purpose.
Spoon-feeding is a necessity for any big-budgeted film if it wants to be commercially viable. More so when a film is about space exploration. Now, the idea of embedding basic information in conversations between equally knowledgeable team members might feel awkward, but the absence of it will completely derail a film, which is what happens here as well. The film gives little information and when it does, it’s space jargon that swiftly flies above one’s head. As a result, the audience sleepwalk through half the movie, watching actors in space gear—great production and art design, by the way—fiddling with knobs.
Are we supposed to be scared for the lives of the four astronauts we’ve not invested in emotionally—considering how it’s a Telugu movie, are their lives ever really at risk? To be honest, one or two deaths might’ve shaken things up and I thought that’s where the film is headed with the kid and her superhero remarks. Or are we to be mesmerised by its blind commitment to give its hero what he wants?
After solving the issue at hand, Dev reveals a secret plan of a detour, and everyone eventually gets on-board. The only guy that doesn’t immediately agree is used by the filmmaker to self-critique his own nonsensical plot twist, but that doesn’t make it any less silly.
The film stops giving us crucial information and when it does, it’s space jargon that swiftly flies above one’s head. As a result, the audience sleepwalk through half the movie
Rahman, as the ISC head and a father who’s lost his daughter, does well. And so does Srinivas Avasarala and Lavanya. Aditi’s Riya is the show-stealer though. The way she quips at the arrogant Dev is the only time I laughed throughout the film, but then the film undoes this by dumping unwarranted guilt on her—the accident is more Dev and Paroo’s mistake than her’s.
Sankalp’s script never challenges the actors, as most of them are straight-faced throughout (this works because of the film’s emotional ineptitude). The dialogues by Kittu Vissapragada are a hit and miss as well. At one point, Dev says to Paroo, his girlfriend, that his fascination with the moon stems from its ability to light up the dark. That is something you’d expect from an Insta-poet, not an aerospace scientist.
None of this is to say that there isn’t any good in the film. The special effects and CG are highly impressive and at times, almost on-par with some Hollywood films. The scene where Dev uses Riya to tether himself in space is both poetic and symbolic. The film also foreshadows Paroo’s fate by showing us her reluctance to wear a seat belt. It even acknowledges how god and science can co-exist by placing a big Tanjore painting of Krishna immediately beside the institution’s logo in the director’s room—a well-framed shot by Gnanashekar shows Rahman standing between the both of them. But such insights are rare and far between.
Dev’s character could’ve been written better considering how he isn’t the typical hero. In fact, his arrival and the eventual unfair addition to the mission projects him in bad light–an arc ripe with conflict. You can see potential everywhere and it is frustrating to see missed opportunities go by, one after another. The film even rushes through the occasions which could’ve been used to create awe-inspiring set pieces for the sake of an ending that is far-fetched and cinematically ineffectual.
Prashanth Vihar’s music, accompanied by words by Ananth Sriram and Sirivennela—‘Dheemaga’ alludes to our fascination with the universe in a way the film never could, tries to fill in the gaps, but even the crescendos start getting on your nerves after a while.
At the end of the day, films are about human beings. Space is a mere setting—arguably one of the more dramatic ones—in which they can interact, react against each other, and grow as people. The film though never tries to go beyond the bare minimum the genre has to offer. Yes, the first nation to have recorded usable data about the moon sounds good. So does the first ever Telugu film set in space, but at what cost? Do we sacrifice individual lives and well-written scripts for the sake of posterity?