Director: Dennis Jeevan Kanukolanu
Cast: Sudeep Kishan, Lavanya Tripathi, Murli Sharma
In this Telugu remake of the Tamil movie Natpe Thunai (2019), there are more slow-motion shots as it features a bigger star in the lead. While Hiphop Tamizha Aadhi, the protagonist in the Tamil version, is still considered a fresh face as an actor, Sundeep Kishan has starred in more than two dozen films. Kishan has been in the business of acting for over a decade now. Moreover, A1 Express is being publicised as his 25th movie. For Indian actors, these milestones are important, for they are going to be etched on people's memory forever.
Khaidi No. 150 is not just a regular Chiranjeevi starrer, it's also his glorious 150thfilm. Of course, Kishan has a long way to reach that number. But now that he has built a fan base, there's hope. A1 Express won't elevate him to the status of a superstar, but it won't derail his aspirations either. This is the sort of movie that you'd want to watch on a weekend with your feet on a stool and a drink in your hand. Although there's an emotion-curdling scene an hour and a half into the movie, it soon gets back up as it's quite pacy.
A1 Express doesn't hold on to the core of its dilemma as it refuses to give the vibes of a moody drama. It wants you to think it's a comedy with a message. And it gets both of them partly right. Another interesting aspect about the remake is that most of the principal characters are named after the actors portraying them. Rao Ramesh plays Rao Ramesh, Lavanya Tripathi plays Lavanya, Murali Sharma plays Murali, Raghu Babu plays Raghu, and Sundeep Kishan plays Sundeep – do you get the drift?
It's not a big deal for films to draw references to the actors' original names. In Gautham Menon's Tamil directorial debut, Minnale, the peppy track, "Maddy, Maddy," focuses on Madhavan's stylish avatar. But here's the catch—he's not named Maddy in the movie. There are about a hundred ingenious ways to build momentum on the screen and the method chosen by A1 Express is oddly simple and gaily fancy at the same time.
The one major worry, however, that snaked into Natpe Thunai was the relationship between its two halves. It seemed as though two different stories were brought together to form a whole. A1 Express takes another route actually to make Sundeep and Lavanya fall in love with each other, but it still suffers from the same problem. It's flavored with the ridiculous trope that makes the hero stalk his eye candy until she relents.
The entire affair concerning Sundeep stumbling upon a picture, featuring Lavanya on social media and then gathering details about her is bizarre. He even strikes up a friendship with her in a matter of minutes. A romantic comedy would have allowed them to have conversations on several topics. But in a film that has its heart somewhere else, these side notes get lost in the cacophony.
In a genre as typical as this, the leads aren't going to get the luxury to extend their flirtatious glances. What happens to their newly-formed coupledom in that case? When Sundeep picks up the hockey stick, Lavanya invariably becomes a cheerleader. The film, immediately, slips from her hands and it leaves little room for her to show off her skills. She, like Sundeep, is also a hockey player, but she can't save the playground and her journey, as a consequence, gets sidelined. A1 Express stands on that particular plot point mostly, but she doesn't get to actively participate in the proceedings.
A1 Express (or Natpe Thunai) is neither the first movie to do this, nor will it be the last. It's a standard template that filmmakers religiously follow. Jersey (2019) and Majili (2019) didn't fall into this boorish trap, thankfully. You won't be able to find this uneven pattern in those sports dramas because they deftly carried the stories of love and loss together. You can argue endlessly about how the cricket-based movies were about two different individuals and not a team per se. But the fact remains that the romantic portion doesn't make any impact here.
It's debatable whether the first half would have been better with Sundeep, Priyadarshi (Priyadarshi), and Rahul (Rahul Ramakrishna) instead – their tale of comradeship and male bonding makes up about 15-20 minutes totally. Stretching this thread for a longer period may have worked in the film's favor. There would have definitely been more jokes and jibes at the political scene in our country. But that's wishful thinking.
None of this nitpicking means that A1 Express is bad, or unwatchable. It's entertaining in its own mundane way, but when there are so many competent actors in a movie, you wish it had aimed higher. That's all!