Cast: Ram Pothineni, Brahmanandam, Nidhhi Agerwal
Director: Puri Jagannadh
Puri Jagannadh has been continuously making films since the turn of the century. He hasn’t had a gap-year so far. He has plowed on, irrespective of successes and failures. That’s indeed an achievement as not many filmmakers have the strength to keep coming back to a place where their fortunes change every weekend. But that’s also his biggest drawback, for his male leads are nothing more than an assembly of factory products. They speak the same language and even show their smarts with handguns in the same way. It doesn’t matter whether they’re an undercover cop (Pandu, played by Mahesh Babu, in Pokiri), or a street-rowdy (Shankar, played by Ram Pothineni, in iSmart Shankar). And the main stories never involve women although they’re present as either vulnerable beings, or firebrands who let their guards down as soon as they chance upon the heroes.
Now that I’ve made Puri’s signature style clear in the first paragraph, allow me to take you into the hedonistic world of iSmart Shankar. iSmart is not pronounced as Eye-Smart—as in iPhone – it’s more like “eschool,” which is actually a localised pronunciation of “school.” Shankar likes to loudly announce that he’s intelligent in almost every scene, and, he truly is, for he’s always a step ahead of his rivals in crucial situations. And the real film starts with the scene—which we don’t witness—of Shankar making an escape from the prison after making room for a tiny scientific presentation as part of the prologue, featuring Sarah (Nidhhi Agerwal).
The elements of a typical hero-introduction sequence that carries a good amount of action-and-song episodes are setup right here. He outsmarts more than a dozen cops with his punch dialogues and his abilities to fight back. And since he’s the protagonist, he doesn’t get injured. You, nevertheless, shouldn’t forget how some police officers, even with pistols, look like idiots in front of the hero. Shankar is supposed to be serving a term for murdering a politician, and, moreover, there’s pressure from the victim’s family to send him back to the prison. But, despite these looming concerns, the cops cut a sorry figure, and, this happens multiple times throughout the film. Jagannadh, who has previously made movies on the lives of cops, perhaps makes the men in khaki appear interesting only when it serves his purpose.
From there on, it’s anybody’s guess as to how it might progress. Shankar’s initial interactions with Chandini (Nabha Natesh), an engineer, border on sexual harassment. When he slaps a builder for not paying hafta, Chandini walks slowly (because it’s her introduction scene this time, there’s a little buildup offered to her in terms of the camera angles and dialogues) and slaps him back. You may think that her entry is important to the plot in the beginning, but you’ll soon realize that she’s the garden-variety character. However, whenever Shankar misses her, he looks—or imagines—at her picture and starts dancing with her. That’s how she literally shows up in two songs: “Bonalu” and “Dimaak Kharaab”.
Filmmakers, in Telugu cinema, must have really run out of storytelling devices. How else would you explain such lazy writing? This isn’t just the problem of iSmart Shankar. The idea that songs can make up for the lack of content in the screenplay needs to be examined thoroughly. For all the science-fiction points (transfer of memories from one person to another) the film talks about, it just seems like an action film which has only limbs, torso, and arms, but without a head at the end of the day.
Jagannadh’s sources of inspiration may be Netflix’s Black Mirror, or the case where memories were transferred between snails (Google it; the experiment was conducted for real). And he may have also been partly inspired by Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I never thought I’d mention that wholesome sci-fi romedy in a review of a Telugu film, directed by this maker. But here I am!
The scenes where Shankar longs to return to a happy place with his girlfriend in the latter half, especially the ones on the beach where he sheds tears, find their parent in Gondry’s moving picture. Of course, they’re not exactly captured in surreal takes, and, the methods are all too simplistic to appeal to a wider audience.
But amidst this ear-splitting chaos, drummed up largely by Mani Sharma’s music and Pothineni’s performance, lies a story that could have been made into a fine science-fiction comedy. Nonetheless, under the eyes of Jagannadh, it becomes a thriller where the villain’s mask comes off within twenty minutes into the plot, a comedy whose jokes sound like threats, an action extravaganza where the hero deliberately rips his own shirt off to show his abs, and a romantic drama which doesn’t have any romance that can put a warm smile on your face.