Cast: Chiranjeevi, Ram Charan, Pooja Hegde
Director: Koratala Siva
Look, I know that heading is confusing. Can the saffron of Hinduism align itself with the red of Marxism? Koratala Siva thinks so.
There is promise in his premise. The residents of a temple town, which is surrounded by lush green hills and pristine rivers, are under threat from a mining company and a local goon. A mysterious Naxalite like a vigilante superhero keeps saving the village from villains but the villagers think it's the local goddess protecting them. The vermillion of the temple and the red of Communism combine to spill the blood from the guts of the bad guys.
It's easy to see what Koratala Siva saw in this premise, especially for Chiranjeevi. A younger actor playing a Naxalite in the modern era would seem odd so he chose the biggest masala star of the 90s to address the most debatable element within the modern Telugu psyche – Naxalism.
But that's just ideas. And Koratala Siva is an ideas man. I'll get to this later, but with Acharya's story, he struggles to convert his ideas on paper.
Because on screen what we get is this. There is an ancient village called Padhagattam. Which is near a city called Dharmasthali. Actually, it's a town. But sometimes it's a village also depending on what the plot needs. The people of the former have super healing ayurvedic powers. But they also want to protect the hills. They live as an idyllic Hindu village cut away from the rest of the world although they dress in Fab-India's latest collection. There is a river called Jeevanadhi. Then a local goon Basava (Sonu Sood) wants to control the village. I'm not sure if it is Paadhaghattam or Dharamasthali or if they are the same thing. And I'm also not sure of what exactly he wants to control. Then Comrade Acharya enters as a carpenter in disguise but in this small village that is also a big town he goes by unnoticed. Then there is a Uranium mining company owner cum villain who first sends his brother while he chills in a port somewhere. There is a lot of talk about upkeeping the Hindu Dharma. But we never see how it is done barring some broad issues like "No Drinking" "No Prostitution" and "No Smoking Weed". Then there is a music teacher Neelambari (Pooja Hegde) who is waiting for Siddha (Ram Charan). Then something…then another…
UGHHHHH. The film doesn't focus and keeps piling on detail and information without giving us something to hold on to. The film wants to tell so many things and wants to project the plot on such a lavish scale that it forgets to connect us to anything that we are seeing on screen.
And by the way, I'm not even done with the first 30 minutes of the film. You know the classic writing maxim of "Show, don't tell" the film doesn't just tell, it dumps information on us, secondary information without revealing what might actually be important to make us feel.
Who is Acharya? Why did he become a Naxalite? Why do people love him so much? Are we just supposed to buy into his myth because it's played by Chiranjeevi? Okay, what about this village that is called either Dharmasthali or Paadhaghattam? Is it a metaphor for Thirumala/Thirupathi?
What is the "dharmam" the residents keep harping on about? Why do we care about this particular village over others being razed down by other mining companies? Is this modern Hindu revisionist fantasy where instead of Rajputs and Marathas saving the religion the director resorts to Naxalites?
And why are the women in this film so badly written? They are either going to be molested, or have already been molested, or are always on the verge of something creepy happening to them? Forget the "item" songs even Pooja Hegde's Neelamabari who is the film's heroine gets a lewd scene where Siddha is staring at her without her consent while she's bathing. This is right after he has lectured someone on dharma.
Why are the Adivasis also shown as helpless victims? Why don't they get a say in the medicine or Maoism that the film wants to show? Is Acharya disillusioned with Naxalism because of its quasi-upper caste nature?
Around the interval mark, Ram Charan enters as Siddha in the screenplay and he acts like someone who was nice enough to say yes to a cameo, but in an attempt to resuscitate the film they extended his character.
His character conflict, unlike Acharya's, is interesting. He is born to Naxalite parents but is raised by upper-caste priestly men in Dharmasthali/Paadhaghattam. Is this a play on the tragedy of Karna, the prince raised in an oppressed caste family? Once his past is revealed to him, what does he think about being a Naxalite and the savior of a temple? We never get into his mind and how his past has an effect on him.
Instead, he transitions into a Naxalite with the ease of someone changing a filter they don't like on Instagram.
And why does everyone in this film keep saying Dharmasthali or Paadhaghattam every thirty seconds? We get where you are. We understand. If we played a drinking game every time someone said Dharamsthali/Paadhaghattam then I would have been in the ICU and that might have been less painful than sitting through this film. At some point, I wished the villains would win so that the "good guys" would just stop repeating these words.
Even Mani Sharma who is so dependable with at least his background music lets you down. There are some moments where the background music blares loudly without any reason as if he was rudely woken up from sleep and smashed his fingers on the nearest drums and synthesizer available.
Part of the reason I'm so disappointed and angry with this film being this bad is because Koratala Siva brought in a freshness to Telugu masala cinema. He took loud and noisy heroes and restrained them and created release points through the screenplay. In Mirchi, when Prabhas places his palm on a windshield and it begins to crack, you wanted to watch that scene again and again because you were waiting for him to be angry. The Mamidi Thota scene in Srimanthudu worked wonders and the "Anthakarana Suddhitho sequence" in Bharath Ane Nenu was whistle worthy because it waited for the perfect moment to use Mahesh Babu's dialogue delivery. Koratala Siva toned NTR Jr's theatrics down in Janatha Garage and never really released him but that worked for that actor because he is almost always in fifth gear.
But here Koratala Siva makes Chiranjeevi a stoic figure and it's evident the actor feels caged. But there is trust that Koratala Siva will bring out 90s Chiranjeevi at some point. You are hoping that the trademark comedy, or the masala moments will come at some point.
But they never come. Rather, the weapons become bigger, the set pieces become larger, and the blood spillage goes from tens of liters to hundreds of liters. But none of these spectacles engages the audience because there is no emotional connect. It takes a special kind of film to take the biggest father and son star duo (Ram Charan and Chiranjeevi) and produce such a lifeless second half. I was harking back to the good old days when I was complaining to my editor about reviewing Bangarraju but there the masala and chemistry between father and son was used to its full potential. In Acharya's second half, a play with the shadows of the wax statues from Madame Tussauds has more life. The dialogues are a bore and the reaction shots which are usually fantastic in Telugu masala cinema are plain comedic.
Only a few moments exist which show any promise of any life. The song 'Banjara' which uses the dancing skills of father and son or the stray shot of a cheetah and its cub drinking water as it pans to its leads doing the same, or the scene where Acharya and Siddha enter an illegal mine using aliases and it's probably the film's funniest stretch leading to a fight.
But that's it. Three instances in a nearly 150-minute film.
Acharya used all the redness for the screen but had no color left for its story.
And by the end of the film, all the redness was in my cheeks because the film left me so frustrated.