Director: Karthik Saragur
Cast: Aravinnd Iyer, Arohi Narayan, Achyuth Kumar
There's something wonderfully dependable about Achyuth Kumar. Some actors are born with sharp and extremely defining features, but his is one of those "blank canvas" faces that absorbs the writing and projects everything from comedy to villainy. He is the best part of Karthik Saragur's impressively titled Bheemasena Nalamaharaja. The character Achyuth plays is a tradition-bound Brahmin named Varadharajan, and he makes this man a monster (compared to Hitler, at one point) without making him a caricature. How can so soft-looking a man seem so… evil? But later, when we learn things about Varadharajan, the puzzle pieces fit. The fluctuations in the character don't seem contradictory, because the actor puts them through most naturally, with minimal "actorly" fussing. He knows just how much tempering is needed to add just enough flavour to serve up a memorable personality. And that's a way of segueing to the point that this film uses food as a metaphor.
The story revolves around Varadharajan's daughter, Vedavalli (Arohi Narayan)—and that's a way of segueing to this film's other great performance, by Chitrali Tejpal. She plays Vedavalli as a child, and she portrays an amazing mix of the real and the theatrical, which is what the writing in the early scenes goes for. There's a scene where she's dressed up as a young Krishna, insisting (like in the legend) that she has not stolen the butter. The bit is real/theatrical—so is staging, and so is her performance. Child actors usually perform purely on instinct, and if Bheemasena Nalamaharaja is any indication, these may be the early days of a very interesting career.
Vedavalli's chubbiness as a child is a big part of what happens to the character as an adult. She loves food. The man, on the other hand, loves to cook. (He's Latthesha, played by Aravinnd Iyer, and he's the character from whom the film takes its title.) This gender-reversal isn't exactly revolutionary today, so it's more useful to extend the culinary metaphor in a different direction. Latthesha has become a stranger to his earlier life, the happier times he shared with his wife and daughter. He's looking for the recipe to restore his life to normalcy. The concept of the stranger is driven home by the Tolstoy quote that opens the movie: All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.
We have stretches at an old-age home, where parents have been abandoned by their children and have therefore turned into "strangers". We have stretches in an orphanage, which is essentially a collection of strangers, who have no "identification". And later, we meet someone whose mind has gone blank, which means this character has become a "stranger" to their own self. Two best friends (one of them is an underwritten character played by Vijay Chendoor) become strangers to one another. At one point, I felt this might have been a more useful narrative base than the conceit of food, which comes and goes, and is sometimes needlessly stretched. (A reference to "The Last Supper"? Really?)
Bheemasena Nalamaharaja is stuffed with lip-smacking ingredients, but the pace is too measured, the telling is too conventional to accommodate its bizarre plot points. (Just wait till you get to a coracle being used as a form of corporal punishment!) The gentle, tasteful colours and movements of Ravindranath's cinematography, the gentle, tasteful music by Charan Raj—they clash with the outrageousness of the scenes and the conceits. Perhaps the idea was to ground the overall strangeness (just wait till you get to a fish being cooked in a mythical manner!) with "conventional" narrative beats, but it doesn't work. Strangely, the most interesting (and somewhat affecting) parts of the film are its most conventional, about relationships and suchlike. Thus, the outrageous ideas (say, the "gender reversal" during a pregnancy) that came earlier seem like a waste of time, a cartoonish distraction from the story we eventually land up at.
Characters like the nurse named Sarah (Priyanka Thimmesh) could have used more personality, more snap. But the overly descriptive dialogues are a bigger problem. A doctor treating a patient with amnesia compares the mind to a trunk with number locks to which you've lost the combination. (There is an actual trunk lying around that fits this description.) Full points to Karthik Saragur for trying to think out of the box at every point—but Bheemasena Nalamaharaja ends up a case of hearty dal-rice dressed up in a five-star hotel with carrots carved into flowers and a sprig of mint placed in the centre with the precision of a NASA scientist. Sometimes, all you want is a rolled-out banana leaf and the satisfaction of licking your fingers.