Director: Ajay Bhupathi
Cast: Karthikeya, Payal Rajput, Rao Ramesh
Shiva (Karthikeya Gummakonda), the hero of Ajay Bhupathi's RX 100, is the kind of up-yours, super-macho man we're seeing a lot, lately, in Telugu cinema. He's built like a tree trunk — when he spreads his arms wide, he seems to be inviting birds to roost. He smokes weed and beats people up. Emotionally, too, he's a toughie. Daddy (Ramki) reminds him — in a clunky bit of expositional writing — that he didn't shed a tear when his parents died. Daddy took him in, and now, he wants Shiva to leave the village. But Shiva won't. We aren't given the reason right away, but it's not hard to guess. It's a girl (Indhu, played by Payal Rajput). His love for her transformed him into mush in a way even his parents' death couldn't. And now, like Arjun Reddy, he pines for her. Is she someplace else? Is she dead? Is that what explains the song sequence where she vanishes every time Shiva tries to take her in his arms?
"My love is like the tide in the sea, which never stops," Shiva says. We see what he means when we cut to a flashback. This Shiva is much milder. In the present, we witness an action sequence in a meat market where Shiva beats up an enemy with the dismembered head of a cow, and much later, he says things like, "My intestines should spill out with the stab of your knife." But in the past, he resorts to violence only when Daddy orders him to — say, after an assassination attempt on Indhu's father, Vishwanatham (Rao Ramesh, in good form). (This stretch is nicely staged, filled with local colour.) But at one point, when Shiva is beaten up by a gang trying to keep him away from Indhu, he offers little resistance. In fact, Indhu seems more of a "man" in these portions, as she takes over the traditional "hero duties."
I wish the leads had been better cast. Their romantic moments are all staged in the same mood — we get one montage-filled song after another
In the midst of demure heroines, Indhu is a refreshingly lusty creature. When she first sets eyes on Shiva, he is in a jeep, celebrating Vishwanatham's win in an election. (Daddy works with Vishwanatham, and by extension, so does Shiva.) But what really captivates Indhu is Shiva's sweaty shirtlessness — the camera gives us her gaze. When Shiva and his men come home, Indhu places before them a tray of refreshment. I thought this would be the point where Shiva raises his eyes and falls, at first sight, for Indhu, but he barely glances in her direction. She's the one who has to say she likes him. She's the one who teaches him to smoke. She's the one who initiates a kiss, and later, lovemaking. She even rides his Yamaha RX 100 (hence the film's title), and when she teases him by making him touch parts of her body, it first looks like a classic male fantasy, but again, it's Indhu's lustiness.
I wish the leads had been better cast. Karthikeya Gummakonda has the physicality the part needs, but he doesn't chart out Shiva's agonies and ecstasies, and Payal Rajput remains a pretty but colourless presence. The writing tells us that theirs is a burning passion, but the actors needed to make us feel this. It doesn't help that their romantic moments are all staged in the same mood — we get one montage-filled song after another. Chaitan Bharadwaj's album is terrific, but the generic, couple-in-love visuals don't do justice to the ache in the music. The only time I sat up during a song sequence was in the second half, when Shiva gets news that startles him. He drops his phone, the pace is dialled back to slow-motion, and he begins to run, to the strains of Manase kasirinaa. (See song video below.) It's a spectacular instance of a musical stretch capturing a mental state.
But this is what makes RX 100 work: a twist that I, frankly, never saw coming. (This twist plays on our familiarity with these types of films, so I'll be surprised if anyone sees it coming.) Throughout the first half, I was restless. The film just keeps checking boxes: the love-across-class-barriers angle, the heroine's disapproving father, the deep father-son bond (despite the sketchy characterisation, Ramki really makes you root for Daddy, and he gets the Telugu version of the title song of Sendhoorapoove in a small moment that made me smile), and so forth. But the twist makes us see that these clichés are deliberate. We are meant to think this is all been-there-done-that, so that the twist really does what a twist is supposed to do: not just take us by surprise, but make us reevaluate everything that came earlier.
We now see why Vishwanatham did nothing when Shiva burnt down his agricultural produce. We now see why Shiva beat up the man who, at the beginning of the film, got out of a bus and disappeared into a house with a blue door. (We also see why the camera needed to linger on him, so we'd remember his face.) The cinematographer, Raam, keeps giving us canted angles — the frame-tilts suggest that what we're seeing is skewed. Intrigued? Go watch the film. Or at least, stop reading now, for the rest of this review is a HUGE SPOILER. Ready? Okay, so there's one thing I wished RX 100 had addressed differently: that a man's love is pure, that the woman is the… bitch. We find shades of this sentiment in Tamil films, too ("pombalaingaley ippadi thaan"), and I wish Indhu hadn't been written as an all-out vamp, who even issues orders to kill. Isn't it enough that the man has lost his heart, his mind? Does he have to lose his life, too?