Director: Koratala Siva
Cast: Mahesh Babu, Kiara Advani, Sarathkumar, Prakash Raj, Rao Ramesh, Aamani, Sithara
In Koratala Siva's Bharat Ane Nenu (I, Bharat), Mahesh Babu plays an overachieving Oxford student — he has five degrees (including a diploma in food science!), and he might have gone on to a sixth (in animal husbandry? Aztec mating rituals?) had he not been summoned back home, owing to a tragedy. A series of events conspires to make him the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh. A title card, at the opening, says this story takes place before 2014 — presumably to establish that the film unfolds in the days prior to the partitioning of the State, but maybe there's also a connect to the man who was elected Prime Minister that year. Bharat Ane Nenu is all about the commencement of achche din for Andhra Pradesh. "He has become a god in people's eyes," says a disgruntled member of the old guard, speaking about the Mahesh Babu character. But how could he not be? Just look at his name, Bharat Ram: it conflates the country and one of its most revered rulers. Had he been born in the West, he'd be called America Obama.
The film is a pleasing (at times, rousing) fantasy that plays like Oke Okkadu (Mudhalvan)-meets-The American President. From the former, we get t angle of a political naïf whose knuckle-down sincerity blows away the cobwebs of corruption: he actually gets things done, things that sound so logical that you wonder why these schemes aren't the norm instead of the exception. For instance, upgrading government schools, monitoring the fees of private schools, and most significantly, the decision to allocate funds to each village in the State (as opposed to blanket development programmes for all villages), so the heads of each village can take care of whatever they need most. A government and a people with an eye on accountability, fear and responsibility. Plus, a Chief Minister who opts for a cup of coffee at a boozy get-together. A fairy tale? Sure. But who wouldn't want it to come true, at least for a few hours in a darkened theatre?
From The American President, we get the love angle — the scene where Vasumathi (Kiara Advani) thinks it's a prank call when a smitten Bharat calls her; the scenes where their romance is used to cast aspersions on Bharat's character. I wish the director had also paid attention to why this romance begins, in the first place. In the Hollywood film, he falls for her brains and her beauty. He falls for her passionate commitment to her work. (She's lobbying for a bill that will reduce carbon dioxide emissions.) Here, Bharat falls for Vasumathi because… she looks pretty in a half-saree at the bus stop he drives past every day. I can understand the stomach-churning fear of making the heroine seem intelligent — but at least, couldn't they have shown these two as already being a couple and spared us the courting scenes? (That sound you hear is the director thundering into my inner ear: How then will I place my lavish dream duets?) The best song, ironically, isn't a duet at all but a celebration among villagers: Vachaadayo saami, a triumph of sets and choreography and costumes, and light and colour (two cinematographers are credited, Ravi K Chandran and Tirru).
His philosophy is "I don't know" — everything he does shows him that there's so much more to learn. Hence those multiple degrees at Oxford. Hence the chorus of his first song: I don't know
After Rangasthalam, this is another close-to-three-hours film, and the lack of invention hurts — not just in the romantic angle, but also in the way the supporting cast (Sarathkumar, Prakash Raj, Rao Ramesh, Aamani, Sithara) is used. The scenes with Bharat's mother and stepmother, the moment with his younger brother, the unmasking of the villain (what's the use of a "reveal" when you're casting the actor who has been playing this role since what appears to be the dawn of mankind?) — all feel very perfunctory. But Bharat Ram is written interestingly. His philosophy is "I don't know" — everything he does shows him that there's so much more to learn. Hence those multiple degrees at Oxford. Hence the chorus of his first song: I don't know.
I loved the touch that Bharat Ram cannot read Telugu, and often asks for the meaning of words. (At his swearing-in ceremony, he fumbles on a word. A reporter picks it up. This setup results in a terrific mass moment — but more about that later.) This makes Bharat human, vulnerable — at least to the extent that a mega-star can be shown to be human and vulnerable in a film that spends half its running time showing him walk away in slow motion (accompanied by Devi Sri Prasad's thunderous score). There's another humanising touch: after every major decision Bharat makes, we see the opinions of the public. Some people approve. Some don't. It reminds us of the goldfish bowl Bharat lives in. Everything is news, everyone has an opinion.
This is one of Mahesh Babu's better performances. His blank-model handsomeness is sometimes a distraction — he never sweats, not a hair is out of place, he keeps flashing a half-smile that never seems to reach his eyes (maybe he doesn't want to wrinkle that face). But I bought his incredulous laugh when the prospect of becoming Chief Minister comes up. And I totally bought his mass moments: the press conference where every point Bharat makes is punctuated by a forceful snap of the fingers, or the superb action scene in a movie hall where we first see him as a shadow (later, this shadow is projected on the screen). The stunts are terrific — I dare you to resist the urge to whistle when Bharat walks with a bad guy slung on his back. But the biggest stunt of all may be that Bharat gets to stand under a spotlight. How and why does an old theatre have such intense stage-lighting? The answer is simple. He's a star. He's got to shine.