Cast: Mahesh Babu, Keerthy Suresh, Samuthirakani, Vennela Kishore
Director: Parasuram Petla
There are two ways to look at Sarkaru Vaari Paata. Either view the film as an astoundingly unoriginal film that follows no screenplay writing rules or celebrate it as the return of Mahesh Babu of the late 2000s and early 2010s where he was willing to take a joke on himself, be villainous, and most importantly show some energy on screen.
When presented with good news and bad news at the same time, I usually choose to hear the bad news first. So let me begin by recounting how creatively dull Sarkavaru Vaari Paata is. The plot is simple. A money lender in the USA, Mahesh (Mahesh Babu) decides to go to Vizag to retrieve money that is owed to him by Rajendranath (Samuthirakani), a corrupt businessman. But once there, he realises that he's not alone in being cheated by the businessman and the film is about him bringing those affected by Rajendranath's greed to justice.
The unoriginality of the film begins from the first sequence which establishes a young Mahesh as an orphan whose parents commit suicide because they're unable to clear their debt. This portion in the film is straight out of the Puri Jagannath textbook of hero making. But where Jagannath uses the parentless protagonist to bestow upon them a moral greyness here it is used for sympathy. Even the reveal of the parents' death seems straight out of Jojo Rabbit and not that the homage is bad but there it was unexpected and here it's too predictable.
Similarly, the plot quickly jumps to the US where Mahesh is established as a scrupulous money lender. But how did an orphan studying in a remote corner of Andhra Pradesh end up running such a successful finance company in the USA? Maybe that story would have been exciting. Because there really is no reason for the story to be in the US other than the fact that it could be a reminder of the days of Dookudu when Mahesh Babu was in a foreign country chasing women and fighting bad guys and it worked well for that film. Or maybe it's a way to please the overseas fans of Mahesh Babu amongst whom he's the most popular out of his contemporaries down south.
But because the plot is set in the US it suffers from a language issue where it is confused about whether to be in Telugu or English and it settles for the English that was popularized by 'Why This Kolaveri Di'. So, when Mahesh beats up goons, he talks in a language familiar to neither the audience nor the bad guys in the film.
Sarkaru Vaari Paata's director Parasuram Petla has had a problematic understanding of consent and women in his previous films, especially Geeta Govindham and Anjaneyulu. His least problematic film is probably Solo and that still has a few issues. Was it really necessary to have Mahesh slap Kalavathy (Keerthy Suresh)? I mean sure she cheats him or tricks but that exists in a plane of farce-comedy that isn't real and the slap awkwardly brings us back to reality. The second half has some straight-up terrible writing where she's pimped out by her uncle to "please" Mahesh Babu. Of course, he doesn't do anything to her but it's all such terrible writing that cheapens his protagonists. Also, Kalavathy is such a badly written character that it's heartening to see Keerthy Suresh play it with so much earnestness it feels like she was still using all the acting notes from Mahanati.
Even in terms of storytelling Parasuram Petla fails because the villain and the hero's quest is introduced after the first act is done and close to the interval. A huge portion of the first half is eaten by a love-hate story between Kalavathi and Mahesh, and honestly, that would have been a refreshing rom-com to watch. But here the generic villain is introduced so late and by then you never really care about him or his devious plans. And Mahesh's reason to take on this cause never feels "personal" enough to his character so the second half becomes a sermon.
It's astounding that despite having no interest in politics Mahesh Babu chooses so many social message-y films with weak plots and weak character arcs. I wish he would join politics because that would justify these films' preachy portions and the wasted potential of an actor as good as him.
Okay, I think I'm done with the bad news part. Now the good news?
It's so refreshing to see Mahesh Babu finally let himself loose and not be too serious. In this film, he is sometimes the punchline, he also lets himself be a little devilish on screen so we never really know what this madcap is going to do and finally it's nice to see him chase a woman without the love story revolving around how handsome he is.
None of it is as good as it used to be between Pokiri and Seethamma Vaakitlo Sirimalle Chettu, but it's a version of him we haven't seen in nearly a decade.
Take his early portions with Kishore (Vennela Kishore) where despite Kishore's warnings Mahesh is hopelessly in love. The one-liners and even the little aside about Kalavathy's Oscar and her being in Titanic are all hilarious. This is where Mahesh Babu is at his best. Being funny and wrong while he gains our sympathies. Or watch him jump on his couch in excitement when he gets a text from Kalavathy and he is back to being lovable and shy reminding the audience of his Khaleja.
Then take the scene in the second half where he is confronting the villain and says "champipaardhobbutha" (I will kill) before transitioning to "naa ego ni" (my ego) with a wry smile. It's a devious tease where the audience knows that he's faking it but the villains don't. It's the sort of goofiness that wasn't present in his last few films. He does this all through the film selling one-liners that aren't funny enough, hero shots that aren't heroic enough, and punch dialogues that aren't punchy enough.
Or similarly, watch him in the end as he sells an outrageous fight in a bank holding a bunch of keys set to a fantastic rap song by Thaman in one of the few moments of the film where all departments seem to be in synchrony. He says "Ekkada badithe akkada fans untaaru" (I have fans everywhere). It's the film's first punchline that feels earned and Mahesh Babu delivers it with the swagger missing in his previous films. But sadly, it's also right at the ending.
With Mahesh Babu, there is this feeling of there being simmering untapped potential – of heroism, of emotional acting, of romance, of comedy – but sadly it seems to be all rumble and noise. It erupted many years ago with Pokiri and Dookudu. But nearly a decade later, while Sarkaru Vaari Paata was a louder rumble than his previous films, the eruption of Vesuvius has been postponed.