Cast: Nagarjuna, Naga Chaitanya, Krithi Shetty, Ramya Krishnan
Director: Kalyan Krishna
I understand the difficulty of the task at the hands of Kalyan Krishna, the director of Bangarraju. He has to make a rural drama like Soggade Chinni Nayana, with a plot that's at least as old as NTR's Yamagola but its sensibilities can't be as raw as a Pushpa or a Rangasthalam. On the other hand, he needs to deliver massy moments but the stars at his disposal, Naga Chaitanya and Nagarjuna are at their best when they play softer roles involving a little less machismo and more introspection. He has to deliver a family friendly feel-good movie like Murari but he can't dish out the existential tension and the man-versus-death theme that film nails because Bangarraju is a festival offering where families throng the theatres and expect films to be light. Even frivolous is okay but not dread.
On top of that he seems to have had a minute budget. And it shows not just in the outdated depictions and animation of heaven and hell but also in the way the scenes are staged and the manner in which locations are repeated. The reason I mention all this is because, at its core Bangarraju has a solid masala story ripe with drama that could work in any generation and in most film industries.
Chinna Bangarraju (Naga Chaitanya) is a wastrel playboy heir in a picturesque village in coastal Andhra. He has grown up without his mother's love and father's attention only to be raised by his grandmother, Satyamma (Ramya Krishnan). Once she dies, and it looks as if unscrupulous relatives and evil men are closing in on Chinna Bangarraju's wealth, the souls of Pedda Bangarraju (Nagarjuna) and Satyamma meddle with Chinna Bangarraju's life and set him on the path to become responsible and loving.
Somewhere in here are two subplots about Nagalakshmi (Krithi Shetty) his Sarpanch cousin with whom he has a hate-love relationship with, and his friend Adi (Govind Padmasoorya) who is connected to the Bangarrajus in a divine way.
The biggest problem with Kalyan Krishna's screenplay is that there never really is any tension about anything happening to Chinna Bangarraju because the older Bangarraju makes an entry early on. Neither do we see the younger Bangarraju suffering nor do the threats seem real. I wish this film delved more into the space that Murari went into where the threat on Mahesh Babu's life was so real and all pervasive that anything could kill him at any moment. This amped up the emotional scenes and the family drama as well.
But here, the film plays safe, rather focusing on leading up to the moments where we get to see Nagarjuna and Naga Chaitanya together and playing to the gallery than to serve the plot. There are many slo-mo shots of them walking, pulling up their shirt sleeves, and mouthing similar lines together, as the older Bangarraju keeps going in and out of the younger one's body.
Naga Chaitanya, who was so effective in Love Story, struggles to play a rural character and the slang sounds awkward like he's trying to dub in an unfamiliar language. Similarly, the age in Nagarjuna is showing – not in his athletic physique but in the way he fights and throws a punch. The gait is slower and on slo-mo it's worse. It's even more awkward given that both of them are such poor dancers, that in a Kajra Re-esque item song, Faria Abdullah towers over them and this is not just a cheap dig at their height.
But luckily, Kalyan Krishna manages to deliver some fine masala moments that are whistle worthy. There is a scene in the second half involving a bull and I was expecting a literal hold the bull by its horns fight. But he has a clever way of stopping the bull that is at once massy and whistle-worthy.
In the same vein, the climactic stretch is sure to make theatres erupt with its massy texture and it's here that you see Kalyan Krishna's potential. All the careful setups pay off and you get a proper old-school masala climax with two and a half Nagarjunas and one Nagachaitanya. You'll understand the half part if you see the film. Even when the leads struggle, the moments concocted by the director hark back to the 80s and produce some fun masala.
But where he deftly covers up for the holes in the abilities of his stars, he seems to struggle to utilize the other fine actors at his disposal particularly, Ramya Krishnan and Krithi Shetty. For the most part Ramya Krishnan is just a witness to the shenanigans of grandfather and grandson and is perpetually mad at Pedda Bangarraju. She shines like she always does but I wish there was more given to her or at least some of the superpowers extended to her character too.
This is where Krithi Shetty's Nagalakshmi, playing the arrogant Sarpanch comes in. It's a badly written part where her role is to be 'tamed' and this is the sort of character Ramya Krishnan would have played two to three decades earlier. Like Ramya Krishnan, Krithi Shetty commits to a poorly-written character but she has that star quality where she can make the most out of this role too. It would have been fun to see if Ramya Krishnan and Krithi Shetty could have had some Freaky Friday type of moment much like their male counterparts.
These issues with Kalyan Krishna's misgivings seem to sting more because he seems to have kept in mind the questions and loopholes audience might ask. How come Chinna Bangarraju seems to be fine even after a major tragedy? It's because heaven and earth have different understandings of time therefore, we haven't seen him grieve but he's been through enough. There is a daughter-in-law who publicly humiliates her in-laws. Given the film's setting it would have been easy to dive into the 80s and 90s type of sermons about a good daughter-in-law. It does. But just when you begin to roll your eyes, the director (who is also the writer) adds a little more because he wants to keep up with the times and makes a progressive enough point.
Similarly, it seems as if Pedda Bangarraju has been having the time of his life – what almost living like a Hugh Hefner in heaven – and only Satyamma seems to miss him making his character unlikeable. Kalyan Krishna then throws in a scene where Pedda Bangarraju becomes vulnerable and speaks about what and whom he's been missing from his life on earth.
Somewhere in there is a great masala story teller who clearly cares for the audience and their expectations. But like an easily distracted student, he veers into unnecessary comedy angles which border on cringe and struggles to utilise the talent that's available to him.
This Sankranthi has been terrible for Telugu film lovers because four major films have been pushed, making Bangarraju go from underdog to becoming the festival's biggest release. It might satisfy some of the festival cravings of watching stars in big masala movies but as a film it struggles to rise above mediocre barring the last twenty minutes. And even there the masala overtakes the plot. But at such a high dose, it's forgivable. Scratch that. It's a lot of fun.