Director: R Srinivasa Rao
Cast: Santhanam, MS Bhaskar, Uma Padmanabhan, Swaminathan, Sayaji Shinde, Vamsi Krishna, Preeti Verma
What would you do if you find a suitcase containing Rs. 20 crores in cash, while you're drunk out of your wits, hated by your parents and left to piss on a wall? Sabhaapathy would take it home and try to return it to its rightful owner the next morning. To my mind, this is what most people would do — especially given how difficult it can be for a pauper to spend Rs. 20 crores without attracting unwelcome attention. But, somehow, in writer-director R Srinivasa Rao's mind, this is the world's greatest virtue. So much so that this is the only likeable thing about the protagonist of his film.
In the film Sabhaapathy, the eponymous hero (Santhanam) is an unemployed youth with a speech disability. He is in love with his childhood friend, Savithri (Preeti Verma) who apparently returns his affections, though I couldn't tell based on her stolid performance in the film. He goes about wasting time until his father retires from work and turns paranoid.
Succumbing to his father's pressures, Sabhaapathy begins attending interviews. After being rejected at one interview and mocked for his disability at another, he gets drunk, kicks his girlfriend's mother in the buttocks, vomits on his father and lands on a suitcase full of cash, belonging to powerful and evil politicians. What happens to his job, love and money makes up the rest of this dreary film.
The biggest problem with Sabhaapathy is that it's written like a drunken performance for the eyes of close friends and family only. Every character, including Santhanam's, is wafer-thin. While it's not hard to empathise with someone struggling with self-esteem issues because of their disability, the film itself does nothing to make you feel anything. MS Bhaskar goes out of his way to fill in the gaps, but they're too big for even a legend like him to fill. Uma Padmanabhan tries her best, to no avail. The high-pitched caricaturesque villains played by Sayaji Shinde and Vamsi Krishna are irritating at their best and impossible at their worst.
The first half is structured so haphazardly, scenes connected by imaginary threads and some text on screen. The voiceover of 'fate' is both ridiculous and redundant. The key plot point happens just before the interval, sending you out for popcorn in the hope that it'll get better. But it doesn't.
The cleverness and counter-giving you'd expect from a Santhanam film isn't anywhere to be seen. The irreverence exists, but it is channeled against reasonable people, making it far less likable than it could be. His antics in most scenes are patently unfunny. Santhanam himself is ineffective in the scenes that expect any emotion from him — be it romance, anger, cluelessness or self-loathing.
There is one scene where the emotion works, when Sabhaapathy tells his angry father, "when you call and I answer the phone, you hurriedly ask me to hand the phone to the sister. My own father, if you don't have the patience to listen to my stammering, how will my employer?" It's a poignant moment. But the film is so uncomfortable with vulnerability that it immediately throws everything in the air and breaks the rhythm.
Instead, the film falls back on misogyny and my-wife-beats-me gags that are so rancid, the stink transfers through the screen. The pre-climax sequence involving multiple people chasing the MacGuffin is tiresome. The fight and the flying headbutt is awkward. The climax and its motivational message are disrespectful.
Overall, Sabhaapathy is a test of patience, even if you generally enjoy Santhanam's brand of humour.