Sarileru Neekevvaru is a Mahesh Babu vehicle, but of course we aren't going to see him right away. We have to idle for a bit before revving up to his appearance. Hence the detour to a college in Kurnool, where Bharati (Vijayashanti) is teaching a class. A girl complains that the boy behind her is misbehaving. Bharati walks up to the boy to admonish him, and she discovers he's drunk and slaps him. (I had a nice little laugh imagining Arjun Reddy in her classroom.) When summoned to the principal's office and told that the boy has an influential father, she refuses to apologise. Right is right. Wrong is wrong. A wrong cannot become a right. That's her philosophy.
This is Manmohan Desai territory. Look at the upright character's name again: Bharati. And look at the first shot of Mahesh Babu, who plays Major Ajay Krishna: he's in Kashmir, standing in front of the tricolour. The film, thus, conflates Bharati and Bharat, the mother and Mother India. This mother has lost one son who served in the army. Now, her second son is in the army, too. The irony is that she has sent two men to safeguard the nation, and now, there are no men left to safeguard her home. Bharati ends up being harassed by MLA Nagendra Reddy (Prakash Raj). The stage is thus set for Ajay to travel from Kashmir to Kurnool. He will take a break from protecting Mother India. The mother needs to be saved, first.
If there's any place the masala film is alive and kicking, it must be Telugu cinema. Tamil cinema seems to be more interested in the "mass" movie, which is more about hero worship. Of course, there's a ton of hero worship in Sarileru Neekevvaru, too – but at least the set-up takes us back to a time when popular cinema addressed the idea of nationalism without the chest-thumping we see in today's films. The tone is lighter, and writer-director Anil Ravipudi is like Manmohan Desai. He talks about serious things, but he doesn't take himself seriously, and the film, too, is utterly un-serious. It's like Amar Akbar Anthony, where another mother named Bharati was resuscitated by the titular blood donors. The idea is as serious as it can get: Mother India is kept alive by the blood of Hindus, Muslims and Christians. But would you call the film itself "serious"? Nah!
This madcap-lightness is evident in the very first thing we see Major Ajay Krishna do: defuse a bomb. The damn thing is ticking away, but he's super-relaxed and asks for a cup of coffee to be made on the spot and jokes with a pal… After a series of ennobling films, it's good to see Mahesh Babu loosen up in these situations, which border on farce and are filled with recurring nonsense-chants like "Take a bow". In a huge action scene, he sings "Hum tum ek kamre mein band ho" and, later, tells the villain: "Tumne gaali diya, maine goli diya." Is this a nod to Narendra Modi's Independence Day speech about Kashmir? "Na gaali se samasya sulajhne wali hai, na goli se…" I'd say it's just about the fun in the rhyme.
Anil Ravipudi may be the only director who imagines entire set pieces in terms of wordplay. The most inventive part of the screenplay is a long stretch set in a train, where Ajay meets Samskruthi (Rashmika Mandanna). The staging is so basic that it's less cinema than a play, but then again, it is a play: a skit. The stretch goes on a bit too long and includes a rape joke that's in really bad taste, but otherwise, it's a blast, with the characters behaving like coked-up cartoons. Another inspired stretch of humour comes in the way the hero packs off the villain's hordes, delivers a punch dialogue and coughs at the effort. (It's a nice touch that this army man considers even his enemies as Indians he has signed up to protect.) The heroine gets her own recurring chant: "I am impressed". But she doesn't come across like someone with a screw loose because she fits right in – the film itself has a screw loose.
Had this self-awareness and irreverence been there throughout, Sarileru Neekevvaru would have been a much better entertainer – a modern-day example of the kind of art form Jonathan Gil Harris describes in his book Masala Shakespeare. "In the masala movie, there is no space for purity. Elements that are supposedly separate and even incompatible bed down under the same roof: tragedy consorts with comedy, poetic language with coarse slang…" Ajay roars like a lion to scare off Samskruthi, who is singing a song about his handsomeness, with her mother and sister as backup dancers. The very next scene, Ajay lands up at Bharati's home, which is in disarray – and finds the woman is missing. Theoretically, in a masala movie, these tonal shifts are okay.
But… practically? That depends on the individual film. In the Manmohan Desai universe, little more is at stake than lost brothers and hammy villains. But here, when Ajay lectures the cabinet and sets off a bomb that emits a tricolour mushroom cloud… Or when constant references are made to Alluri Seetarama Raju, which starred Krishna… It all feels off. Now, we are in the realm of the "mass" movie, where not just the hero is worshipped but also his father. Does this arise from the leading man's insecurity or do fans demand this? Can't Mahesh Babu be allowed to simply run amok in a crazy movie where anything can happen… and does?
Still, here's an example that shows Telugu cinema still does this kind of movie best. At first, Bharati thinks she can get away with antagonising Nagendra Reddy. But soon, his harassment takes a toll – she is forced to go back on her principles and admit that wrong is right, especially when the wrong is backed by Nagendra Reddy's might. But when she agrees to withdraw her complaint, he utters one of the best lines I have heard in this sort of film: "Honest people like you will stay scared only for a while. You will soon regain courage."
The best masala movies operate on the friction between good and evil, and this line tells us why Nagendra Reddy secretly fears someone like Bharati. It made me wish someone had made a movie with her as the protagonist. There was a time Vijayashanti single-handedly carried films like Pratighatana. There, too, she played a college lecturer who goes up against a powerful local politician and avenged her humiliation. But now, she needs a Mahesh Babu to fight her battles. Part of it is age, yes – rather, the apparently inflexible rule of mainstream cinema that older female actors can only play supporting roles. But even with someone younger, is it possible to see an all-pervasive action-heroine in our cinema anymore?
The other Telugu film I caught last week, Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo, has a much better story – but like Sarileru Neekevvaru, it shows how it's possible to do at least a few interesting things around a big star. Watching these films after Darbar and Pattas is particularly illuminating. These Tamil films do nothing new. Even if you argue that the ancient martial art of adimurai is showcased in Pattas, the basic trajectory of the film is as old as the hills. There's nothing "subversive", like the decision to ditch seriousness for a while and spend a long time in a train with a completely wacko family in Sarileru Neekevvaru. Now, you may like this stretch. Or you may say it does not work for you. But it's certainly unusual from a screenwriting viewpoint to avoid comedy "scenes" in favour of a gigantic comedy "sequence".
Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo, directed by Trivikram and starring Allu Arjun, is about a baby swap. A middle-class man who is jealous of his wealthy employer swaps his son with the latter's. His logic is that at least his son will enjoy the comforts he doesn't have, and there's also a bit of revenge involved. The rich man's son will grow up "poor". Again, many older films come to mind, where children are separated and nurture is pitted against nature. But what stands out here is the effort that's gone into writing the outrageous, "illogical" and OTT moments. There's a stretch where hit songs of Telugu heroes are played in a boardroom meeting. Somewhere, Manmohan Desai is smiling.