Narappa is adapted from Vetrimaaran's Asuran which in turn was based on Poomani's novel 'Vekkai'. At first, we see Narappa, played by Venkatesh, as a very weak man. He's someone who would sacrifice his own self-respect to keep him and his family out of trouble. And one of his sources of trouble is the three acres of land that he owns. A local big shot wants to buy it but when Narappa refuses, there's a killing, then a revenge killing, and then, all hell breaks loose.
This is a story of haves and have-nots but it also has lots of genre toppings. It's a story of a chase, a revenge, and a big fat whistle-inducing hero transformation scene right at the intermission point. But within this broadly generic material, there are specifics that really make the story.
The main story is that Narappa's son, Sinabba (Rakhi), kills someone as a result of which the family has to go into hiding. But the story actually begins a generation before with a man who just wants a pair of slippers so that the girl he is marrying could walk comfortably. All this violence that spans two generations begins with an act of love; it's, sadly, a beautiful touch.
Srikanth Addala amps up the emotional moments but otherwise, this is a faithful adaptation of Asuran. In fact, I would call it too faithful an adaptation. The color schemes, costumes and GV Prakash's now famous trumpet blare are retained. There's a single-take scene in Asuran where the family packs up their house and leaves. It's a single-take scene in Narappa too; the aesthetics are very similar. But Narappa works even if you've seen Asuran because the core is so powerful.
Take the wife, Sundaramma, played by a very effective Priyamani. She wishes that it wasn't her son but her husband who took the revenge. As for her sons, they view their father with borderline contempt. They wonder why he's such a weak man who never fights back. Despite his best efforts, the bloodlust that was originally inside Narappa has been passed on to the next generation: it's not nurture, it's nature.
The screenwriting in the film is cyclical: what happens in one generation finds an echo in the next. In the younger Narappa's time it was forbidden for members of his caste and class to wear slippers. But in the present, he's able to casually buy a pair of slippers for his son. Even the violence is cyclical. Take the scene where the family dog dies. Sinabba is distraught when his mother consoles him that they have another dog. He asks his mother if she would feel the same way if one of her two sons died. That single line defines Sinabba's character throughout the film.
Even the older son, Munikanna (Karthik Rathnam), has his own peculiar notions of revenge. He's been beaten up by cops, instigated by the big shot who is behind all this. And still, Munikanna rhetorically asks what kind of father would he be if he didn't retaliate against someone who beat up his son.
Venkatesh holds the film together. As he's older than Dhanush, his world-weary look is really convincing and he tweaks his image to very good effect. Thanks to him and the rest of the cast (and Vetrimaaran's story and screenplay) we get a rare beast in Telugu cinema: an action-driven character drama or a character-driven action movie.
Films like Kshatriya Putrudu have already asked the question: when will the cycle of violence stop? But for all their strengths, they were glossier products from a particular era. Narappa feels like a sharper whiplash. I felt that Asuran wasn't up to the earlier work of Dhanush and Vetrimaaran but still quite good. I could tweak that to say that Narappa isn't quite as good as Asuran but — on its own terms — it's pretty good.