Director: Deva Katta
Cast: Sai Dharam Tej, Ramya Krishnan, Jagapathi Babu, Aishwarya Rajesh
Every once in a while, Telugu films serve up a political fantasy where an educated protagonist cleans up the system so that people can live happily ever after. It's instant gratification for an audience that will soon go back to cutting lanes at the traffic signal or forgetting to vote. Republic wants you to think it's that film. But it's actually something else.
The film tells the story of an idealist called Abhiram (Sai Dharam Tej), an IAS aspirant (Jayaprakash Narayanan meets the average Telugu Hero), who is well-educated, politically aware, and has a scientific bent of mind. As a boy, he calls people who believe in 'gods drinking milk' idiots. He decides to have a transactional relationship with his father (Jagapathi Babu, playing a government officer, named Dasharath, for good measure), after catching him doing something shady.
Once he grows up, he sets out to form his own Abhi-Ram Rajya fighting against injustice. (By the way, Sai Dharam Tej in Jawaan played an RSS volunteer making him one of the few Telugu actors to have covered the entire political spectrum.) But I think here's where the film confuses a hero with a good resume for a good protagonist — because on screen, Abhiram is awfully flat on screen. He's relentlessly sermonizing, like most of Dev Katta's protagonists who spout the grandest dialogues that aren't always what's "right" for the moment. Everyone talks in metaphors of "battle" and "chess", even "rape". All of Deva Katta's research is vacuum-packed in dialogue.
There are potshots at the Thackeray family, Unnao Rape case, and other political easter eggs. There are direct references to Darwin, Nietzche, The March of Progress (the evolution of monkey to man photo), the principles and pillars of democracy, and the Vengi Kingdom. I laughed out loud at the sheer audacity of Abhiram to deliver a punch dialogue using Darwin and Nietzche.
But nobody does grey characters like Deva Katta. Look at the police officer who is at once evil and a helpless victim of the system he's a part of. Or the collector who within a span of two minutes does something evil but then gives a lecture on the pressures he faces and is suddenly humanized.
And Vishakavaani (Ramya Krishnan playing a Sonia Gandhi meets Jayalalitha type character) is just the most entertaining version of 'grey' on screen. It's been nearly 20 years since she played Neelambari in Narasimha and nobody comes close to making grey characters look so much fun that you just want her to always win. Like in this review, the movie takes some time to fully bring her into the forefront of things because it wants to first establish the Hero (yawn!) and then subsequently build her character as a challenging antagonist.
She's not characterised as 'evil' because she too has a past,an idealist father, disillusionment with Communism, and the Emergency — perhaps a better story that could make a better film. If the movie was just two-and-a-half hours of Ramya Krishnan berating the world with a smug look, it would still be more fun than Abhiram's story.
Watch her when uses her saccharine voice to infantilize Abhiram by calling him "my son" while she sets the world on fire or when she sips coconut water as people (monkeys as she likes to call them) are ready for bloodshed at her command. Abhiram's only weapons against her are his idealism and speech-making. Ramya Krishnan towers over Sai Dharam Tej.
The point of contention between Abhiram and Vishakavani is Thelleru lake (reference to Kolleru Lake) which is being contaminated for the sake of fisheries and it's affecting the surrounding farmlands. And Machiavelli-incarnate Vishakavaani has turned farmers against fishermen. Here too there is lots of research about freshwater lakes, pollution, and bacteria. This is exposited by Aishwarya Rajesh whose character Myra has an interesting premise: She belongs to an Anglo-Indian family and her brother and niece are both white. There's amusing drama there but before we can delve into it, Myra suffers from a severe case of Telugu Heroine-itis where she's reduced to dispersing information that Abhiram can use, and later she falls into the hands of the villain.
The film has so many such interesting dilemmas. A corrupt father and an honest son, a farmer who is at once in a pitiable state but is also deplorable, people who want justice but still adhere to the caste system — and of course, the threads of Vishaakavaani's past and her present. But Republic is severely bogged down by the protagonist whose story it chooses to tell, and therefore it remains predictable till the end.
Remember, I told you this film wants you to think it's a political fantasy. But, yet, there is a moment towards the end of Republic where the protagonist begins to play 'Nammaku nammaku ee reyini' (Don't trust the new dawn) from Rudraveena. There's something perennially rotten in the state of the world. So, don't trust the scent of change.