I vividly remember watching Spyder on its opening day in the September of 2017. My parents flew down to Chennai, where I was studying, for the Dussehra weekend. For the festive movie-watching ritual, we picked Spyder, the most anticipated film of the year. One of the biggest stars of the south, Mahesh Babu, was collaborating with one of the most successful filmmakers of the south, A.R. Murugadoss. In an interview, while promoting the film, Mahesh Babu called the film the next Bahubali, stating that the film was a visual spectacle for all ages.
For the lack of a better word, I have to say that the trailer looked cool, both visually and conceptually. It had Mahesh Babu, playing an intelligence officer named Shiva, accessing cool gadgets, sharply looking at computers, and doing things that action heroes in Hollywood films do. The expectations were skyrocketing, and it just couldn't go wrong. Finally, we are giving a fitting answer to the dumb American action extravaganza, I believed. Baradwaj Rangan's review, headlined 'one of the best things AR Murugadoss has written and directed' coupled with a 3-star rating, reaffirmed my belief. I did not read the whole review, which if I had would have helped me prepare for the bizarre ride that film was going to be. I did not have the slightest idea how different the film would turn out to be from what we were promised.
After a generic but watchable 25 minutes composed of the hero-introduction, a customary song dedicated to the man, and a spark-less boy-meets-girl (more of the hero stalking heroine after overhearing on her talk on the phone to her friend about pornography), we get a true shocker where Spyder takes a 180-degree turn. Two women are butchered and their remains are mixed, and women from both families are requested to identify the body parts, as Shiva and we watch in shock and disgust, digesting the grotesque tragedy. The scene is disturbing on multiple levels. Firstly, the obvious gore that is left to our imagination. Secondly, this wasn't supposed to be that kind of film! We were just there to watch Mahesh Babu effortlessly take on thugs in slow motion and walk away without a scratch. The theatre had never been more silent, especially for a mainstream entertainer of this scale on the first day, even by multiplex standards.
This level of threat within the first 30 minutes of the films is unheard of in the Telugu masala zone. My mom was visibly appalled and she still holds a grudge against A.R. Murugadoss for ruining a perfect family outing; she refused to watch his latest film Darbar, fearing it might leave a bad aftertaste during Pongal this year. Her anger is valid: a film about a chilling psychotic serial killer on the loose certainly doesn't make for a family viewing, and most importantly, it doesn't make for a masala film either, and that's where Spyder goes haywire. It blends sinister ideas that would thrive in a horror film with a masala treatment, and the result is far from both. It is too nasty and chilling to make for an entertaining watch and lacks the necessary power to make for a gut-punching psychological thriller.
One might argue that turning a psychotic villain who finds solace in watching people wail and shriek into a visually attractive popcorn feast is utterly ridiculous. But the inconsistency and lack of conviction make it one-of-a-kind experience. Spyder is wickedly intriguing and weirdly entertaining. It is a film of extremities. There is a prolonged stretch set in a graveyard, where the film's antagonist Bharaivudu (Sudalai in the Tamil version) spends his childhood. Just to give you an idea of the creepiness, in one scene, a young Bhairavudu and his brother play with a human skull, kicking it around for fun. It is also a film that has dance numbers in splendid foreign locations and dazzling sets in which the hero and heroine dance to energetic beats wearing silly matching costumes in sync with the colour theme. Show me one film that has both of these – a grotesque murder spree and cheerful dance numbers – and I'll rest my case.
The flaws are innumerable. Throw a stone and you are likely to hit a logical loophole or questionable character decision, but the writing surprisingly towers above the hero, a rarity in a masala film. Pardon me if I'm overusing the word masala but it's crucial in elucidating what sets Spyder apart from other terrible entertainers that don't qualify for guilty pleasure re-watches (cough! Saaho! cough!). This one is different. It stands out without much of an effort, for all the wrong reasons, but it is an easily re-watchable film, owing to its ability to surprise the viewer time after time.
Mahesh Babu has grown synonymous with the title 'saviour' in the recent past. He saves an entire village in Khaleja, poor farmers from evil corporates in Maharshi, righteous people from vile politicians in Sarileru Neekevvaru, innocent youth from corrupt men in power in Bharat Ane Nenu, and so on. However, can you believe that he fails to save hundreds of lives in Spyder from a single serial killer? He fails miserably! And every time he fails, we expect him to come back stronger, but it doesn't happen, further pushing our hope into darkness. Even during the climactic sequence in which he is supposed to save people from a collapsing hospital, he fails to do so. I feel Spyder is the reason the star is on a saving spree ever since, compensating for all the lives he couldn't save in this one. The hero does end up beating the villain to a pulp, but it was never about proving physical strength, it was about saving people from the claws of death. Which, of course, the hero failed to do, thereby making this probably the only Mahesh Babu film in which he is overpowered by the antagonist in the end. Although we are tricked to believe that good won over bad, watch closely and you know it didn't.
In the film's opening song, a line goes by veediki vinapadakundane cheemalu chitikala veyyalu le, translating to ants can't snap their fingers without him overhearing them. A boulder the size of a blue whale rolls through the city, creating massive destruction in the presence of a bewildered hero. It's ironically funny on a level, rudely surprising on another, and entertaining as a whole.
The Dark Knight inspiration is evident, but it continues to hit with surprises one after the other, creating a sense of discomfort every time Bhairavudu is on screen. As I exited the cinema, I was perplexed, not knowing what to make of it: was it a masala film with substance or a thriller with an existential crisis? Nevertheless, I enjoyed it more than my parents and the others sitting next to me in the auditorium, whom I overheard saying on the phone in the intermission that kids should not be permitted to watch such movies.
Spyder is the most fun I had watching a Mahesh Babu film in the last 6 years. I re-watched it more times than every film of his that followed, but none have the energy and invention Spyder possessed. By invention, I'm pointing to the way Bhairavudu murders people. No other commercial film has emphasized murders as much as this did. Bombing a hospital feels like the most simple, conventional, and peaceful death mechanism orchestrated by the antagonist, compared to his earlier deeds.
As they come from the school of mainstream cinema, Spyder is the most different film in both the director and star's filmography, which also means that it's a unique film with no counterpart. On one level, it's a dumb action extravaganza; on another level, it is a chilling psycho-thriller. Such a blend is hard to come by. Regardless of all its silliness, I liked Spyder more than any big Telugu entertainers in recent times, because it tried hard to stand out from the crowd and failed gloriously, leaving behind a film to be cherished for its silliness. More than a guilty pleasure, it has grown absurdly comforting over the past couple of years, to the extent that I remember the inanest of its dialogues and still watch it once every few months in secrecy, completely aware of how much the film annoyed my parents.