I have a theory that at some point in his life Vishwak Sen heard the quote "love me or hate me but you can't ignore me" and took it to heart. Because, like pineapple on pizza, there is no middle ground with him. He is not content doing a rom-com about a love-hate relationship with one woman but he wants his protagonist to have failed at love with 1600 women, an antithesis to the Hindu God Krishna. Even when he does a simple rom-com he wants to step where no hero has stepped before but sometimes there is a reason why others haven't stepped there. He has successfully presented the Telugu screen with a new type of hero.
If Vijay Deverakonda revived the 'Angry Young Man', Vishwak Sen has carved himself a space as a brat on screen ('The Brat-man' if you will). Whether it's a lovable or a spoilt one that's left to individual audience members. He played a lovesick alcoholic brat in Ee Nagaraniki Emaindi, he played a bratty goon in Falaknuma Das, and in his last outing HIT his brattiness was disguised by the seriousness of the crime he was investigating. And in Paagal he reinvents himself as a Manic Pixie Brat, Prem, whose sole ambition in life is to find love and do anything for it. It works with mixed results.
Paagal tries hard to add many things to the Telugu romantic genre: give Vishwak Sen a likeable impractical side, tip its hat to the romantic angle in Telugu films, mock those same films, and subvert the genre's tropes. Some hat tips are direct references such as the primary characters in the film, Prem and Theera, role playing as Balu and Anu from Tholi Prema. (Theera is played by a dependable Nivetha Pethuraj and dubbed by an even more dependable Chinmayee.) There are subtle nods to Aarya with the "I'll say I love you if it stops you from jumping off a building" and an even subtler nod to Magadheera's white chunni hanging out of a bus so that the hero can run behind it. I'm sure there are more too if one looks hard enough.
The best and most convincing homage is the hysterical sequence that mocks Telugu dubbed versions of Mani Ratnam's films — characters screaming across a short distance, the odd sounding Telugu, and rhyming dialogue. But at the same time the film can't help but add more Mani Ratnam-isms such as squeezing the lead pair into trains (including a silly sequence where Prem jumps off a train when it's at full speed), show its leads through mirrors, and attempt at giving them an OK Kanmani-esque montage song.
Along with these the movie also adds the cliches of the Telugu romantic genre: exploding music when the heroine sits on the hero's bike and touches him for the first time, awkward monologues about the nature of "sincere" and sexless love, the song where the Hero and Heroine cry in sadness because they are forced apart, and of course the central conflict of the film which is a quasi-Oedipal quest for love by an orphan who will do anything to experience the love that his mother once showered upon him.
If all of these sound like a collage of observations it's because the film itself is confused about what it wants to be but it also thinks it's being very clever. And in some parts the clever bits are certainly very clever. Let's first discuss those bits and the ones that feel fresh. The first Hero-shot of the film is given to Bhoomika who plays Prem's mother. This combines the "mother-sentiment" with the hero introduction shot to show the world from Prem's perspective when he was a child. Then there is the absolutely brilliant love track between Mahalakshmi (Indraja Shankar) and Prem which tries to push the accepted notions of the hero falling in love with a fair-skinned petite girl. Misogynistic and racist punches are present but at least, they are uttered only by Prem's friends and during a few moments you manage to sympathize with Prem for having such mean friends. (Because who is Brat-man if his love for "Fat Woman" isn't mocked by his sidekick "Bro-bin".)
Mahalakshmi getting the Mani Ratnam romance spoof and her role in shaping Prem feels fresh. His revenge against her too feels sweet. Is it a literal middle-finger shown by the over-the-top romance of Telugu films to Mani Ratnam's notions of "young" romance or am I reading too much into this? Probably the latter. Take Prem's previous love story with Sophie (Simran Choudhary) where she "uses" him and cheats on him for a selfish purpose. Prem is understandably angry and upset. He even gets the cliched post-break up drinking-with-friends scene. You think it's going to go into the slut shaming and "women are gold diggers" zone. His friends go there but Prem refrains and tells us why he is so quick to move on and understand her perspective and what he can learn from it.
And the less I tell you about the track with his next lover, Raji, the better because I hope you enjoy it as much as I and the audience in the theatre I watched it in did. I am scared of giving away any spoilers but I also can't be proud enough of Vishwak Sen and the director Naresh Kuppili for going where no Telugu hero has gone. The most I will say is that the Karan Johar who gave us Kanta Ben in Kal Ho Na Ho, and who oversaw Dostana will be very proud. It's a sensational track where the misleading began with the teaser campaign. One of the first teasers to be released contained Prem uttering the cheesy dialogues he does before he saves Raji. The teaser felt vapid but now it all makes sense. Prem is really paagal for love.
Even the overused comedic sequence about a gang of eve-teasers is a hoot because the real joke is at the expense of Telugu heroes who utter silly punch dialogues after beating up stalkers and harassers while they themselves take part in the same activities. But here is where the problem with the film lies. Like an excited child telling a story the film wants to get to the jokes, and twists in the story rather than let the audience breathe and feel the moments in the film. The film thinks its twists are clever enough for it to not reveal basic details about characters. But what that does is make its characters appear utterly flat until a twist which makes you understand their actions and by then it's too late.
This is most apparent in the second half of the film where the dramatic meat around the love story between Theera and Prem lies. But we don't know who Theera is. Why does she agree to be in a time-bound relationship with Prem despite being engaged to another man? How does it all tie up with Raja Reddy (Murali Sharma) who is Prem's reformation project? Even here, there is a whiff of good ideas. The love story is set in Vizag which is a city that faces the sea to show that Prem stands on its shores staring at an infinite sea craving equal amounts of love. Hyderabad's cramped landlocked nature wouldn't do justice to Prem's grand ideas of love. Even Nivetha Pethuraj's name is 'Theera' meaning 'shore' and her name is a brilliant metaphor to the fact that she's everything Prem wanted but he's too busy facing the sea of opportunities in front of him.
The film has a semi-circular structure where it begins with a child doting on his mother and it ends with another child worshipping her father. But none of these really work primarily because the chemistry between Nivetha Pethuraj and Vishwak Sen is absent. How can a romantic film work when the leads have no chemistry? All of the other actors who play his lovers share more romantic chemistry with Vishwak Sen than he does with Nivetha Pethuraj.
In the emotional beats Vishwak Sen tries to be dramatic unlike his understated style in earlier works but he appears more like a child whose time on the XBox has been limited than a jilted lover. Nivetha Pethuraj is given little to work with in individual scenes because the weight of her character is shifted into a twist. Why have capable actors like Rahul Ramakrishna when they are wasted?
Paagal ends up conforming to what it wants to challenge despite being a brave attempt by Vishwak Sen and Naresh Kuppili. But it's still only an attempt and half-baked in many places. For now, "The Brat-man" who has gotten his way with box-office numbers and critical acclaim so far, should be reminded that you either get to be a brat who is loved and hated or repeat the shtick long enough only to see yourself be ignored.