Every once in a while, we get a movie so unclassifiable, so out there, so unmindful of the Is this a safe bet at the box office? question (or even the Does all the clutter come together? question) that you're just glad the damn thing exists. How do I describe Avane Srimannarayana? Let me leave you with the image of Lord Vishnu in his Narasimha avatar, but chomping a big, fat cigar – as He spreads His legs and gets ready to disembowel this film's Hiranyakashipu equivalent, who's sprawled out on His lap. And that isn't even the nuttiest visual. Try this: a treasure hunter with a silly hat and a pendulum in his hand, looking like the great-grandson of Professor Calculus from the Tintin comics. His name? Harischandra.
The film is a joyful pastiche — although one that makes you think the people making it had a lot more fun than those watching it. (I mean, there's no earthly reason it should rattle on for over three hours.) It's partly a hunt-for-hidden-riches adventure like Mackenna's Gold. It's partly a lost-world saga like King Solomon's Mines. It's partly a pop-detective yarn like Jagga Jasoos. It's partly a spoof-Western like Blazing Saddles (minus the fart jokes) or Quick Gun Murugan (minus the exaggerated "south-yindian" parody). I was even reminded of — wait for it! — The Return of the Jedi, in a bit where someone is mistaken for a saviour, thanks to a "sign".
But despite this "let's toss everything into the cauldron and keep the pot boiling" approach to narrative, the storytelling has a tonal purity. The film is one of a kind — it also looks all of a piece. David Fincher said (I'm paraphrasing) there are two ways to shoot a scene, and the other one is wrong. The work of (first-time director) Sachin Ravi and (cinematographer) Karm Chawla gave me that feeling — every frame is so precise, despite two hundred things happening all at once. When a man falls, we feel the splat of him hitting the ground. The film is stylised to within an inch of its life — but that's the only way such a stylised screenplay can be made to work, with scenelets unfolding as reflections in a pair of sunglasses and extreme slo-mo action sequences. There's so much gonzo visual imagination that I practically wept with joy when the protagonist, Inspector Narayana (Rakshit Shetty, with the world's biggest shit-eating grin plastered on his face), lines up people in order to jog an amnesiac bandmaster's memory. (The image harks back to a lineup from the opening stretch of the film.)
A lot of this stems from the writing, too (Rakshit Shetty, Chandrajith Belliappa, Anirudh Kodg, Abhijith Mahesh, Nagarjuna, Abhilash). The way all the clues come together is a joy. The songs are standout set pieces, with the quirk quotient cranked all the way up to 11. (You have to write a song screenplay first, before getting the choreographer in.) We know this is no simple-minded masala movie when the hero makes his entry — it's an extraordinarily imagined scene — in a theatre screening Rajkumar's Bhakta Prahalada (see Narasimha reference earlier). And by the time Narayana attempts to wolf down parotta and mutton curry while fighting off a bunch of goons, you're torn between What were they smoking? and Whatever will they think of next!
But amidst this exhilaration, there's a simultaneous sense of exhaustion. The length is one reason. I am all for letting scenes breathe, but there is something as too much (hot) air. And the myth-making isn't organic. It's no accident that the hero is named Narayana, because the heroine is Lakshmi (Shanvi Srivastava), a sidekick calls himself Cowboy Krishna (his "mission" is to safeguard American cowboy culture, and he's played by Rishab Shetty), a city goes by the name of Amaravati… When the Indiana Jones movies evoke myths (say, the Holy Grail), they play it seriously. There's a lot of humour, yes, but it isn't wacko comedy. Translation: there's no Cowboy Krishna. So we take the premise seriously, which isn't the case with Avane Srimannarayana, where nothing seems to be at stake.
The other major problem is the subplot involving two warring brothers Jayarama (Balaji Manohar) and Tukarama (Pramod Shetty). Every time one of them appears, the film begins to sag. Again, it's the issue of how can we be expected to take things seriously in the midst of so much buffoonery. (One of these siblings even has daddy issues!) The screenplay makes a big deal about a line of control between the regions reigned over by these brothers, but people seem to be crossing these borders with ease. I am not asking for "logic". But even within the universe it sets up, a film should take a stand — and I was left wishing for a different flavour of villainy. But the spikes are so inspired that these lulls gradually recede from memory. If nothing else, Avane Srimannarayana is a brave film. You don't want to give it a medal so much as an affectionate kick in the rear. I squirmed during parts, but now I find myself looking back at the film with much fondness.