Director: Mallik Ram
Cast: Teja Sajja, Shivani Rajashekhar
Often, how someone reacts to a film says more about that person's tastes and expectations than the film itself. This applies more so to my review of Adbhutham.
About thirty minutes into the film, when the 'twists' start rolling my jaw nearly fell. If that feels like an exaggeration be prepared for a few more. It was a fresh twist leading up to the moment and there were few clues lined up along the way too. When I noticed them, I thought they were careless production errors but I was terribly wrong. It was all deliberate. Right till the end, I was glued to my TV screen as I watched the film till 2:30 in the morning.
Adbhutham, a sci-fi rom-com, is about Surya (Teja Sajja) and Vennela (Shivani Rajashekhar) who find themselves communicating with each other despite having the same mobile number. It's about how these two people solve this technical issue and a romance that brews despite being in two different places in life.
The film begins on a magical, Shakespearean note. There is thunder and lightning and magenta coloured clouds foreboding the perilous times to come. It's also a signal that what's about to follow is going to be in a magical space and we have to take a few leaps of faith with the film. The film's protagonists on the other hand struggle to take a few leaps of their own too.
Adbhutham then proceeds to weave the genres of sci-fi and rom-com till the end and it aces the balance in its attempts. The Telugu rom-com beats and tributes are all present, added with a mix of the unbelievability of Serendipity and the ignorance of the protagonists in Premalekha. The meet-cute, the separation of young lovers, the love-hate-love relationship, the hero drinking excessively, the heroine being pressured into a wedding alliance and the climax too. Even the 'friend' characters who serve as hero-ki friend tropes are present. Satya perfects the character of Prasad and gives us a whiff of what Sunil brought to the films in the 2000s, a decade where he perfected such roles. If you judge it just based on the rom-com angle then this might have been a predictable film.
It's the sci-fi angle that cements the film as one of the best entertainers of the year. It's not art like Predestination, which Adbhutham clearly is influenced by, but it's a fantastic fusion with all the masala expected of a Telugu film.
The film works as a rare tribute to all the great sci-fi works in both Telugu cinema and Hollywood. A clock tower reference to Manam, a reference to Aditya 369 in the climactic portions, and I think even the psychological thriller aspects of 1- Nenokkadine — Telugu cinema's biggest 'if-only-it-was-a-hit' movie. Other than Predestination, there are elements of Back to the Future, Michael Crichton's Timeline etc.
It isn't just that the film 'respects' the audience and the story it's trying to tell. The team has done their homework with getting its setting right. Every time the rom-com part of the film needs a bang, the sci-fi turns up like a knight in shining armour. And every time there is a scent of the sci-fi being overbearing the rom-com and drama ground the film.
The story directed by Mallik Ram is written by Prasanth Varma, whose other works include the impressive Awe and Zombie Reddy. Lakshmi Bhupala is credited with screenplay and dialogues. The trio has done a splendid job particularly in pacing the film. 140 minutes is a long duration for a modern rom-com but barring a cliched song sequence in the second half, the film never tests your patience. The closest they come is the falling in love portions in the early second half of the film where they play a less believable and more mainstream love story. Throughout the rest of the film the trio are complemented by the camera work and editing of Vidyasagar Chinta and Garry Bh respectively.
Last week I noted that writer-director Damodara struggled with songs in Pushpaka Vimanam and here too the director struggles to use them to lift sequences. Maybe the modern crop of filmmakers wants to do away with songs completely but are afraid of the rejection from audience and actors. Or maybe there is a more creative solution coming along the way.
Only time will tell.
A grouse I have with this film is the need to name the protagonists Surya and Vennela falling in line with Telugu cinema's tradition of naming its protagonists in a way so that it's rubbed in that they are a couple made for each other (or not). Some other versions of such name pairs are Ram-Janaki, Bhoomi-Akash, Bhoomi-Sagar etc. Other films might need spoon-feeding but this film which expects its audience to understand solar flares and fast radio bursts didn't need this.
In terms of acting, it's Shivani Rajashekhar who makes a stupendous debut. Telugu cinema has long been waiting for a female actor who can dub for herself, act and also pull off the 'heroine' bits. She gets the right mix of 'bubbly', rebellious, lovestruck and comedy. Even her emotional beats are top notch without jumping into the 'too much of glycerin went into the making of the film' territory. Of course, the compactness of the script helps but for the first time, in a long time, the female lead helps the script in equal measure. Teja Sajja is great as Surya but he struggles in the flashback portions where he has to play a younger version of himself. It's odd to see a young actor struggle to play young but where the film requires him to be vulnerable, he is good. I was more impressed by the believable 'chemistry' between the lead actors given the situation they find themselves in. The pair do look headed for more mainstream outings but one can hope that they don't forget to experiment with such roles in the future. Along with Satya, actors who I have a soft spot for such as Shivaji Raja, Radio Mirchi Kiran, and Devi Prasad are impressive in roles that are meaty but have limited screen time.
Till now it felt like Telugu films had begrudgingly accepted the OTT revolution happening to cinema like children denied candy settling for broccoli. There's an air of 'we wanted this to be seen only on a big screen' or 'this is not the same without the frenzy of fans in an auditorium'. Adbhutham is the first Telugu cinema, which because of the way it respects its global influences while keeping the formulae intact, works terrifically on OTT and would have been equally magical on the big screen. Hopefully this is not the last.