Raja Raja Chora is interested in dualities and the many secrets all its characters hold from each other. There are many lies they tell each other and, worst of all, to themselves. So, the film is not a tale of good vs evil but those "who are not that bad" vs "those who are very bad". It believes that nobody is really morally upright but people will tell lies, make mistakes, commit sins and then repent for them in their own ways.
The film itself works as a duality — at one level it's a simple film about a thief/xerox shop assistant but it's also a philosophical film which has a specific world view.The protagonist, Bhaskar (Sree Vishnu) works in a Xerox shop. This is deliberate. It's not just to show that he's not earning enough but that he deals in originals and copies. But he's also a thief by night and that's how he makes ends meet.
Even in terms of his romance (or the lack of it) he leads two lives: as a boyfriend to Sanjana (Megha Akash) and the other as a…husband to Vidya (Sunaina) with whom he already has a child. He is in an unhappy marriage and he wants to escape it so in the film's world view he's not just an asshole, but he's a sinner. But before you feel bad for Sanjana, know that she too has a big secret and that's why after he gets caught and Bhaskar covers his lie by revealing only half the truth, she easily forgives him. A liar has no option but to forgive, the film wants to remind us.
Then there is Wilson Reddy played by Ravi Babu who nearly perfects being intimidating and comical. Wilson is the primary antagonist but he too has multiple dualities. He is a cop but he also steals. He is a great friend but he also has an affair with a friend's wife. But the best and most real of all, is the duality where he is afraid of his mum and is a dutiful son while he lusts after Sanjana and makes her uncomfortable.
Even minor characters such as the doctor (Srikanth Iyengar) get dual sides. He is not just a doctor who saves lives. He works as a real estate broker who loves to entice his rich patients with the prospect of owning their own house. Then there is Anjamma aka Anju (Gangamma) who plays the role of a neighborhood old lady who Bhaskar hangs out with and gets drunk with occasionally. She could be both his therapist and a supplier of the costume that lands him in trouble (more on this later). And finally, the biggest duality in the film is infused by combining classical music and blues, rap and Telugu poetry, folk and jazz into the songs and background music by Vivek Sagar. In fact, where the film thinks it's being cool it's actually just Vivek Sagar's music grabbing you by the collar and making you enjoy his show.
There is one person who is very straight and flat amidst characters full of secrets: Vidya, meaning education. I don't think it's coincidental that her name is 'education' in the film. That's what the film is trying to tell its characters and audience too. Take the long path of education and wisdom. There are no shortcuts or loopholes. Just because she has no secrets, she is not reduced to a moping house wife or a dutiful one. Her ambition is to be a lawyer. When Bhaskar complains about getting married to her she fights back asking why he agreed to marry her for dowry if he knew her real plight. And when he threatens to not pay the fee for her course, she threatens to use law against him. She walks away from her marriage when she's tired of his lies and she manages to achieve her dreams and live by herself.
And even the film's hero shot is reserved for her when she saves Bhaskar in the police station. She is sitting face to face with the cop. He's blackmailing Bhaskar who's been caught committing a crime. Bhaskar looks silly because he is wearing the costume of a king that apparently makes everyone a master thief and brings luck and treasure their way. It's like a superhero costume. Except it's landed Bhaskar in the police station where he is cowering in fear behind his wife while she does all the talking. She walks out having saved her husband, fights off a cop using her education, and becomes the hero of the moment. You see that's the power of truth, the film's trying to say.
This is also Bhaskar finding treasure, albeit it's not gold and money but a wife who is worth all the gold and money. If you think I'm reading into the metaphors too much it's because either they are all coincidences in the film or they are all deliberate and I'd like to believe that director and writer Hasith Goli is aiming for the latter.
There is the direct reference of Valmiki told by Thanikella Bharani who is the story teller here telling us the story of Valmiki while it's juxtaposed with Bhaskar's journey. His character tells us the story about how Valmiki turned from thief to saint and Valmiki wrote the Ramayana after he transformed and so too you can write your life's greatest story once you atone for your sins.
Take the subtler references when Bhaskar meets William Reddy (the police officer) to discuss a deal. William Reddy is playing snooker but the real question is 'how does he play it'? He takes a shot but rather than play from where the white ball lands he picks it up and places it wherever he wants to, breaking the rules of the game. He then proceeds to make a deal with Bhaskar where William Reddy is ready to bend and break laws. Take the scene where the owner of the Xerox shop blatantly sermonizes to Bhaskar. He's telling him the power of truth and a life lived honestly. What does he have in his hand? A book called Pedda Baala Siksha which used to be part of many homes and has multiple chapters dedicated to teaching children morality.
In the scene where Vidya rides the bike after saving her husband and for the first time Bhaskar begins to see 'why' he should love his wife and what he's not seen so far, what's the signboard on their way home?'Under Construction'. He's wearing the costume of a king but he's been reduced to a laughing stock in his neighborhood. You can be a king for a day but a joke for life. When Bhaskar is lost in thought about how to save himself from the police, he is not just smoking on his terrace, but there is a bright red cross in the background. It's as if he's getting crucified and the crown of gold has turned into a crown of thorns for him.
Not all the metaphors are as serious and some are genuinely funny. In the scene when Wilson Reddy has a tight grip around Bhaskar's neck in Sanjana's house, what is the ad playing on TV? Santoor Mummy ad. And then William Reddy proceeds to reveal that Bhaskar has a child and he has been lying to Sanjana all along. With the way the film plays with light- reds blues and greens, and the number of pop-culture references, and the weird mix of English that Bhaskar tries to speak I'm sure there are countless other metaphors in the film which I believe are intentionally there.
But not all of the film works and in a few places the dialogue feels odd and it suffers from not being dramatic enough (which is an odd complaint by Telugu cinema standards). Sree Vishnu's acting seems derivative of his previous films as if he walked from one film to another but forgot to shed the previous characters' mannerisms. And with films like these the discussion around the film is a more engaging experience than the film itself. But where the film does slow down, the music by Vivek Sagar saves it from becoming a rough ride.
Before I saw it, I really wanted Raja Raja Chora to work for three reasons. First, I was stuck in a family event. It looked like unless I sneaked out, I wouldn't be able to catch the film. So, I lied. "I need to buy some medicine." I did not want my lie to be wasted on a disappointing film. Second, I've come to a small town inside the belly of Andhra Pradesh and there are no theatres here. So, I had to go to a theater an hour away by bus (because personal modes of transport would have raised suspicion). The theater was a single-screen turned into a multiplex theatre but COVID has been rough on it. The seats were dusty and the sponge had torn through the red-velvet covers like the hair through an unbuttoned shirt of a 70s film star. I wanted this theatre to survive. Finally, I have seen some of Sree Vishnu's earlier work — Brochervarevaru Ra and Needhi Naadhi Oke Katha — and was impressed by his ability to play the "frustrated young man" character without playing to the gallery. It requires restraint to not play it in a 'massy' way. When he is frustrated on screen you see the weight of a once young man who dreamt of conquering the world but now avoids the kiraana store next to his house because he hasn't paid for last month's groceries. Actors like him are rare in Telugu films and the last thing we need is actors like him to disappear. I stepped into the theatre placing high expectations on the film, some of which were beyond the film's control.
And I walked out of the theatre satisfied and feeling like my lie earned its weight. But when I went home everyone asked me where I had been, I had two options: either continue the lie or tell the truth. I leave it to you to decide what I did. Because if there is one thing I've taken back from the film it's that Vivek Sagar's title track is so damn hummable.