Director: Venkatesh Maha
Cast: Satyadev Kancharana, Hari Chandana, Naresh, Roopa Koduvayur
Given that a lot of Malayalam cinema would practically pass for "art cinema" in the bigger, brasher neighbouring industries that speak Tamil and Telugu, how does one tackle Dileesh Pothan's Maheshinte Prathikaaram (2016)? Two years after the Fahadh Faasil starrer came out, Priyadarshan gave us an answer with his Tamil remake, Nimir. He turned a subtle dramedy into one more suited to his loud, slapsticky strengths. There were laughs, sure, but you also winced if you'd seen the original. The film was shot like a blingy commercial, and Priyadarshan's stagey, nineties'-style direction felt positively archaic when compared to Dileesh Pothan's lived-in textures. And now, we have the Telugu remake. Venkatesh Maha, the writer-director who made C/o Kancharapalem, fares much better with this material. He "mainstreams" it, too. But he's got an eye. He's got a vision. Most importantly, he's got sincerity.
You see this sincerity in the setting, the casting. Uma Maheswara Ugra Roopasya is located in Araku Valley, a hill station in Visakhapatnam district that's home to tribal communities and Telugu-Christians — and not one face seems out of place. The actors come in glorious shades of brown: no one's glammed up with makeup. This naturalness extends to the performances. Satyadev Kancharana plays Mahesh like the love child of a teddy bear and a cup of condensed milk. He's so sweet, so warm, so overall-nice, you wonder how any girl could leave him for another man. That's what Swathi (Hari Chandana) does, but the writing makes her seem practical rather than a vamp. And the couple gets a lovely moment of closure. The way all this is handled made me recall the original film, and yet not miss it.
The story is the same. It follows Mahesh, a photographer who owns a small studio where he takes pictures of people who either can't tell a good picture from a bad one or don't have a choice. (It's such a small place.) Mahesh's days are the same numbing routine of "smile… chin up… shoulder down…" But at one point, through no fault of his, he gets embroiled in a street-fight. Like in the original, we get the chain reaction of events that happen not to the protagonist but to the people around him (this includes a great gag set around the national anthem), and eventually, Mahesh is beaten up by a hothead. He's humiliated. He swears revenge. As this occurs around the interval block, we are primed for a testosterone-fuelled second half. Which Telugu-film hero, after all, has failed to do what he set out to do?
But Mahesh was first a Malayalam-film hero. The great joke of Maheshinte Prathikaaram (Mahesh's Revenge) is how it completely subverts our expectations of Mahesh obtaining his revenge. And, in the process, the film strikes a blow at the heart of the hero-centric masala movie. Mahesh is the gentlest of men, and yet, owing to the culture of masculinity in patriarchal societies, it doesn't take much to leave even someone like him baying for blood. In a typical masala movie, the second half would simmer with the prospect of the final showdown between good and evil. But in Maheshinte Prathikaaram, the "villain" simply vanishes. The hero is left nursing his wounded pride and the realisation that life goes on.
This premise was a tough sell in Tamil cinema, where masala traditions are far more entrenched than in Malayalam cinema. It's a tougher sell in Telugu cinema, where masala traditions are far more entrenched than in Tamil cinema. So it's all the more gratifying that Venkatesh Maha sticks to the tonality of both Maheshinte Prathikaaram and his first film. (C/o Kancharapalem, in many ways, was practically a "Malayalam movie.") The only real complaints I had were that the second half seemed draggy (which, I admit, could be a result of seeing this story for the nth time), and that the music was too intrusive. The film wants you to laugh. The music keeps reminding you to laugh harder.
But yes, I laughed a lot. The tone is very broad, but also very funny. The very title gives you a sense of the sensibility at work. It sounds like a line from a Sanskrit shloka in praise of the fearsome half-lion/half-human god Narasimha. What you get, instead, is Mahesh. That title is Superman. Our protagonist is Clark Kent. You don't need cartoon music to make this irony apparent. At one point, Mahesh's father gazes dreamily into nothing and sighs that it's a wonderful world. His friend looks around to see what's so wonderful, and his eyes fall on a barbershop where a man is getting his underarms shaved. Again, the laughs come naturally. Suhas is a riot all through. I died when he narrated an absurd story about a prostitute and a pimp. In his case, a lot of the humour is underplayed, except for a bit that actually involves a banana peel.
The fine supporting cast includes Naresh (as the local osteopath and Mahesh's friend, philosopher, guide) and Roopa Koduvayur (a standout as Mahesh's love interest). But this is really a director's showcase. When filmmakers move from a micro-budget indie like C/o Kancharapalem to something more high-profile, they sometimes lose themselves in trying to gain a bigger audience. That doesn't happen with Venkatesh Maha. (That's probably why he cast Satyadev Kancharana instead of someone more… high-profile.) Uma Maheswara Ugra Roopasya isn't as perfect as his earlier film, but it's perhaps a better indicator of his sensibilities. To take someone else's property and still show some kind of authorial signature means you're holding on to who you essentially are. This is the rare remake with soul.