Director: Ramana Teja
Cast: Naga Shaurya, Mehreen Pirzada, Jisshu Sengupta
I'm not a big fan of a subsection of the thriller genre where the plot is about women being abducted/murdered, and the solution always happens to be a man with a genius brain and unbreakable body. Even if we try to ignore the fact that they seem to monetise female pain, they tend to make for a rather boring watch. That said, Aswathama, starring Naga Shaurya, film does feel better, even if slightly, than the rest because it seems to come from a good place. There is dignity in the way the film deals with crime. And even if it does ultimately become a man's reaction to something that's happened to a woman, it gives the woman a minute to process her trauma as well.
Aswathama is about Gana (Naga Shaurya), a brother who cares deeply for his sister (Who doesn't? But who are we to stop a filmmaker from diluting a thriller with the sister sentiment to make it more commercially digestible?). She encounters a unique problem, and in the process of solving it, he finds out that there are other women facing the same issue. The rest of the story is about him piecing together the puzzle, while also making it seem like his girlfriend Neha — Mehreen Pirzada is yet to do a film where she betters her debut performance, but she is adequate here — is indispensable to the film's plot (Spoiler alert: She isn't; neither is the slap she receives).
The film begins with a black-and-white aerial shot of Vizag's RK beach — Manoj Reddy's cinematography makes the best use of things at hand — accompanied by Pawan Kalyan's rousing dialogue from Gopala Gopala where he talks about Draupadi. I get that RK and PK rhyme, but I was not prepared to have him thrown at me without warning. I don't think this was done to help the film gather some clout, but more a way of telling us where the title came from.
I still don't know how the protagonist, who refuses to share the information he has with the police, equals Aswathama, but he seems to think he does, and so we move along. To director Ramana Teja's credit, the film does have a sophisticated aura about it, even if it doesn't always justify the 'intelligent film' tag. The first abduction, especially, is executed impressively. Composer Ghibran's BGM helps a lot with sequences such as this, where the rhythm is asked to elevate the scene, because the content has not!
Naga Shaurya is satisfactory as the man at the middle of the mystery. He's also written the film's story, said to be based on true events. The economy with which he writes the story deserves appreciation — a single song is used to wrap up the romance angle, and even though it takes time to get to the core, it does not deviate once there.
However, one cannot help but wonder if the screenplay would've gained from some objectivity. Genre films are not conducive to heroism. The 10-minute hero introduction shot — which flight did he alight from, by the way, and why is he the only one in the airport? — poses a problem later. The idea of a man-on-a-mission sells well at the box office, but a thriller needs some back-and-forth to be, well, thrilling. The audience needs to feel like a part of the proceedings. Here, though, the suspense is dissipated when the bad guy is introduced. His character's backstory needed a longer exposure, but Jisshu Sengupta is really effective as the menacing yet calculative necrophiliac/serial rapist.
As the story moves along, the violence starts getting gratuitous, loud and tedious. Yes, Gana is angry, but you need to give the audience something more than that to stay engaged. His idea of getting to the bottom of the problem is beating every man who's ever liked or stalked his sister. At one point in the film, he needs to find the right ambulance among five, and instead of coming up with something logical, he follows them all and only manages to get to the right one by sheer luck and brute force. It is not stimulating for a viewer to watch a man continuously using brawn over brain. This is disappointing, because one can see genuine effort, at least in the beginning, to make a proper thriller.
Eventually, Aswathama repeats the same mistakes of most thriller films. Instead of focussing on the mystery, it shines the spotlight on the man solving it.