Ramana Teja’s Aswathama opens rather ominously, with an NT Rama Rao-channelling voiceover quoting a passage from the Mahabharata. It’s about the disrobing of Draupadi, which no one questioned — except one man. “Only Aswathama raised his voice and was saved. This is justice.” A little later, there’s another ominous stretch. A man hands his underlings some money, along with a young woman’s photograph, and asks them to get her for him. (This man is played, of all people, by MS Bhaskar. It’s nice to see him in a quasi-villainous role.) The men carry out the deed, using a… poison-tipped shuttlecock. (I must admit, I’ve not seen this MO anywhere else.) What happens to the poor girl?
For that, we must wait. We must wait a good half-hour, which introduces us to the happenings in the hero’s household. We get a black-and-white prologue, with a pregnant woman being wheeled into the ICU. She delivers a baby girl. Her young son (the future hero) walks in a little later and peers over the cradle. The infant stops screaming. The mother looks at him and asks, “Will you always look after your sister this way?” In other words, if not for that scripture-spouting voiceover, if not for that poison-tipped shuttlecock, we are squarely in the realm of the big, fat Telugu family drama.
I suppose the director wants to ease us into the proceedings. Instead, he ends up wasting a lot of screen time. We waste time on the hero-intro shot. (Naga Shaurya plays Gana, the little boy from earlier, now all grown-up.) We waste time on the hero-heroine duet. (Mehreen Pirzada plays Neha.) We waste time on the song that takes place during Gana’s sister’s wedding. We even waste time on some hare-brained philosophising. Gana and his cousin (or maybe a friend) are smoking in the bathroom. The cousin recalls some poet saying that the relationship with a cigarette is far better than the relationship with the people around you. Gana explains why. “Some people come into our lives permanently. But in the end, even if we beg them to stay, they will leave us. But the thing that comes without intimation and stays with us till the end, even if we ask it to leave, is the cigarette.”
Some will call all of this “acceptable commercial compromise” and make their peace with it. Others, like me, will wait impatiently for the real plot to kick in. In the midst of all those happy-family scenes, we do get an inkling of where the film is headed. Someone is pregnant, but she does not know how. It’s a relief that the man she is with trusts her and accepts her situation as an unfortunate accident — but other women are not so lucky. Finally, we begin to see it’s an epidemic. Who are all these young women ending up pregnant, without any knowledge of how it happened?
All clues point to a serial killer — or at least, a serial molester. The man is revealed midway through the movie, and his evilness is described by the MS Bhaskar character (likened to Shakuni) as follows: “I don’t know what time his mother gave birth to him… he seems to have been born with the cruelty of a hundred Kauravas.” So they’re really pushing that Mahabharata angle we heard at the film’s beginning. And with Jatayu and Ravana being invoked, the other epic makes its presence felt, too.
But Aswathama never manages to tie these mythic roots to the modern-day trope of the serial offender. There’s a really creepy scene where the villain has sex with a corpse, but the man’s motivations are fuzzy and the chain of crimes isn’t convincing at all. The gore isn’t… gory enough. Perhaps the idea was to make this genre of film something the whole family could watch, which may explain the rakhi sentiment (and a sentimental song) bang in the midst of Gana’s furious investigation. But why get into this zone in the first place if you are going to skimp on the dread and not leave the audience squinting, with a queasy feeling in the stomach?
At the end, what we get is some sort of “mass” movie. When Gana starts beating up a bunch of men linked to the villain, a song erupts in the background: An angry man with fire in his eyes / Fierce warrior, this fearsome man / Like the timeless Lord Shiva, a hero who is like a torrent / He doesn’t spare wicked and cruel people / He has unexpected intelligence / His life is like an invincible electric current / His determination is a tsunami… Some of the action isn’t bad, but what’s the use of energetic heroics if you don’t have a strong-enough villain? If you are filching from the epics, Rama had a ten-headed demon. Gana just has a paper tiger.