Cast: Dhruv Vikram, Megha Chowdhary, Raiza Wilson, Easwari Rao
Just last year, with Adithya Varma, we said Dhruv Vikram makes a confident debut in a faithful, competent, well-crafted remake of Sandeep Reddy Vanga's Arjun Reddy. And now, we are faced with another remake that claims to "introduce" Dhruv Vikram — that, too, one directed by a famous filmmaker, Bala. Apart from the trivia aspect of a scrapped film being released on its own, Varmaa is significant for a number of reasons. It's always of interest when a director with a unique style and vision takes on pre-existing material and makes it his own: think Martin Scorsese's The Departed, which opened up the lean/mean Infernal Affairs into something far more operatic, with far more focus on interpersonal relationships. Plus, the story is right up Bala's alley. He did, after all, make Sethu, the original "tough college senior pines for demure fresher" movie that transformed Dhruv Vikram's father into a bona fide star.
Very early on, we get a hint that Varmaa may indeed be a "Bala movie". Remember the scene where a horny Arjun Reddy went temporarily insane and brandished a knife when the girl who booty-called him asked him to leave? (Her fiancé had unexpectedly landed up, and was at the door.) Here, our protagonist stands up nude and brandishes something else. When she says she is sorry, he makes her apologise to his penis. You have to give the scene this much: it has balls. Why, then, does it remain so flaccid? Because — and this could be said of the whole film — the actress is bad, the lines are bad, the staging is bad, Dhruv Vikram himself is… not good. Looking back at how much better, how much more confident he was in Adithya Varma, the young actor probably benefited from play-acting through the whole film once. Varmaa must have been one hell of a dress rehearsal.
The story is the same. Varmaa is a gifted surgeon with anger-management issues, and he throws himself a marathon pity party when Megha (Megha Chowdhary) leaves him. She's the love of his life, and without her, he decides there's no life. He drinks his body weight in booze. He gets a lesson or four. The end. The film doesn't work at all. As in Adithya Varma, there's no chemistry in the love story. But more tragically, at about an hour and fifty minutes, almost all the connective tissue is gone. The original ran almost three hours. It was a grand wallow through a flawed man's psyche, and it needed that grand running time. Varmaa plays like the equivalent of "match highlights", for those who missed the actual game. Not a single frame is distinctive, or shows that a major filmmaker is behind the camera. You get the feeling Bala was forced to direct this with his hands tied.
I hoped that Bala would pull us into his world, with graphic violence and his marvellously eccentric humour. But the only touch that shows he was even remotely interested in this movie is the character arc of Bhavani (Easwari Rao), who replaces the grandmother in Arjun Reddy. Bhavani is the domestic help who raised Varmaa, and she's so much a part of the household that she even talks back to his father. Bala has always had a special place in his heart for people in the lower rungs of the social ladder — both class- and caste-wise — and the one bit I loved with all my heart was when we see Bhavani dressed in a silk sari for Varmaa's brother's wedding. Without saying anything, this touch says so much about who she is in that house. I would have loved to see a Varmaa from this woman's point of view. Easwari Rao doesn't get much help from the writing (Wiki says the screenplay is by Raju Murugan, though the film has no screenplay credit), but at least she manages to put over a halfway-interesting character .
That's more than you can say of anybody else — though I wouldn't blame the actors, exactly. I think it's more the result of the heavy cutting and the extraordinary indifference in the making. The small tweaks — there's no "fat chick" moment, and Varmaa actually slips a ring on Megha's finger — make no difference because the narrative is so abrupt in the larger sense. For a film with such heavy-duty emotion, nothing connects. It should sting when Varmaa insults Bhavani, but though Easwari Rao's eyes well up, those tears don't make us well up. Varmaa looks cheap, like the movie equivalent of a budget airline. While writing this, I hurriedly pulled up scenes of Sethu from the web: they have more polish, and that film is two decades old. They were right to go for a reshoot. I would have even settled for a bad "Bala movie", which would still have made for more interesting conversation than most of our releases. But this one's just fifty shades of meh.