Director: Vijay Kanakamedala
*Minor Spoilers Ahead
Surya Prakash looks hopeless as he's brought into the prison along with other criminals. There's no colour in his face and he's not happy about where he is. He has clearly been tortured physically and mentally, and you can see it in the short steps he takes. Allari Naresh plays this character, but the allari-ness (playfulness) upon which he has built his career doesn't seem like it's going to show up in the movie.
The scene doesn't end there. There's more humiliation waiting in store for him. When a cop orders Surya Prakash to undress, he does so obediently. He doesn't have the energy to oppose. And as he removes his shirt, lo and behold, you can notice multiple injuries on his torso and back. He has been arrested for killing an activist — a murder he didn't commit. This particular stretch is meant to shock you, and it achieves this result pretty well. All the trash comedies that Naresh has been a part of for almost two decades disappear from your mind when you watch him in that chilling opening sequence. This is the mark of a good actor.
Surya Prakash comes across as an average middle-class fellow whom you might bump into at a park, or a theatre. You could be friends with him, perhaps. Better yet, it could be you. He may not even have stepped inside a police station all his life. And this is what the film wants you to understand. Anybody can be taken to the police station and framed for murder. And what does the investigating officer, Kishore (Harish Uthaman), have in his hands as evidence? Three flimsy pieces of CCTV footage that puts Surya Prakash and the victim in the same frame in three different places!
If Kishore produces that alone, he'll be laughed out of the court. Newspapers and television channels will ridicule him day and night. He knows that, too. So, he studies Surya Prakash's background. He wants to stack heavier things against him.
When Kishore accuses him of being a supari killer, he's gobsmacked. He's not ready to take it all in. He says he's innocent, but the cop won't listen to him. The beatings continue and his body turns into a pile of meat and bones. Kishore wants to break him, but Surya Prakash wants to live to tell the tale someday.
On-screen, however, this isn't the first time that we are witnessing the tremors of police brutality in South Indian cinema. Vetri Maaran's Tamil drama Visaranai curdled our blood a few years ago. Though Naandhi doesn't take that route fully, there are many scenes where you'd want to close your eyes. It won't help Surya Prakash in any way, but that's what we, humans, instinctively do.
Vijay Kanakamedala, in his directorial debut, talks about the overwhelming number of under-trial prisoners languishing in about 1,000+ jails across the country. He gives us a tiny peek into the apathy surrounding their community and quickly narrates a story that charts an individual's road to freedom. Can Surya Prakash get his life and dignity back after being acquitted? And whether it's Visaranai, or Naandhi, the directors make it a point to tell us beforehand that their protagonists are innocent. If they're guilty, we won't sympathise with their agony.
Had Surya Prakash really murdered the activist, Naandhi would have become a murder mystery, and Kishore would have, inevitably, been hailed as a hero. But look at his immorality — he packs a gullible man off to prison for five years. He manages to make the court believe that he has a strong case against him.
Naresh does a great job in highlighting a common man's fight for justice. He pours an extraordinary amount of seriousness into his demeanour by growing a thick beard and sticking true to the nature of the genre. His beard is a sign of his inability to roam around Hyderabad. In the scenes where he's freewheeling in the flashback portions, he only has a moustache. He's been cast against his type here and it's certainly going to open new doors for him in Telugu cinema. Well, he can still star in mindless comedies. Nobody will stop him from reaching for low-hanging fruit, but his area of expertise has widened with Naandhi, now, and that's the takeaway.
From the point of view of the makers, it's a risk to rope in an actor known for his comic timing. There are a couple of small jokes here and there, but they don't shift the focus from the prisoner's suffering. Kanakamedala and his team deserve all the applause for re-branding Naresh and giving us a social issue drama without turning it into a social studies lesson.