Director: Mallidi Vasishta
I know the heading sounds harsh, but I partly mean it as a compliment. And as for the other part, I meant to be, well, harsh. I think you'll agree with me, too. Here's the story writer-director Vasishta has chosen to tell.
A ruthless king Bimbisara gets rid of his opponents, including his own twin brother Devadatta to rule the Trigartala Kingdom. He doesn't stop even if he has to kill children. He's a despot, but he also leaves you in awe with the sheer power he commands. One day Devadatta reemerges and dethrones Bimbisara and sends him through a magical portal into the modern world. This despot now must adjust and learn to be human in today's Hyderabad, while also protecting his descendants. The anti-hero finally becomes the hero Trigaratala and his descendants need.
Bimbisara lacks a powerful enough villain and it's near impossible for the stakes to be high once Bimbisara transforms. Oddly, that happens at the interval mark. Worse, one can sense the change coming early on in the first half.
The biggest reason this film feels like a let down probably has nothing to do with Vasishta and his vision. Because if told like a folk tale and narrated by a storyteller, this story would have been powerful as it has all the makings of a masala film. But the production values never match the director's vision. The CGI is too tacky. The sets are awkwardly constructed. There's a scene involving a hidden treasure that once belonged to an emperor. So nearly two thousand years later when his modern descendants rediscover the spot, the film wants to show that the place is now covered in moss, weeds and grass. But the sets are so badly staged that the moss looks like blotches of green paint often found after a paintball fight, and the grass and weeds look like rejected set décor from a school play.
Even when the production values meet his vision, Vasishsta chooses to mount the film almost similarly to Baahubali. The costumes during battle are similar. The way the kingdoms of Asmaka and Trigartala are imagined seem like second drafts of Maahishmathi kingdom. The courting scene between Ira (Cathere Teresa) and Devadatta (Kalyan Ram) is too similar to the first time the elder Baahubali sees Devasena in Baahubali 2. Even Bimbisara feels eerily similar to Bhallala Deva. At some point, it feels so similar to Rajamouli's vision that it feels like the film Rajamouli rejected before he went on to make Yamadonga.
If I was being bitter, I would have said it feels like a straight-up copy, but because Vasishta shows some flair and creativity in the first half, I'll assume that like most young storytellers in the Telugu states, Vasishta is just too influenced by Rajamouli. It might take him a film or two to shake it off.
But is in the second half that you see Vasishta begin to lose control of the film. With a fantastical movie like this, there are obviously some physical laws that are broken, and as an audience member, you accept them. For example, this film argues that one of the mirrors in Salarjung Museum is the other end of a portal that connects the modern world to Trigartala. But at least early on, the mirror is hidden so that explains why others haven't accessed it. Later on, the same mirror is in full display and for the sake of a 'fat-kid-eats-anything' joke, the laws of this universe are bent, which makes us want to question the film's own universe. Similarly, Bimbisara is shown to not understand any modern lingo, but close to the climax he understands what viruses are, how touch-screens and most modern equipment functions.
I understand this film in particular faced a lot of production issues — they started shooting in 2019 and the rising budget costs would have made life harder for debutante Vasishta. But there's only so much leeway I can give for the film it wanted to be and not the film it is.
Kalyan Ram in particular struggles to maintain consistency in character, never getting the balance between villain and anti-hero. And as the straight-faced Devadatta, he is a bore. Because the film adores Bimbisara, there isn't much growth for anyone else. All the characters set up in the first half such as Ira, Vyjayanthi (Samyuktha Menon) and Subramanya Sastry (Vivan Bhatena) are wasted and have no pay offs.
But the one person who manages to do his best to stitch together the difference between the film's vision and its execution is MM Keeravaani. I've always felt that he gives his best for Rajamouli. Not that he gives others a bad album, but he seems to go the extra mile for his younger brother. The music he composed for this film feels a grade above most of his recent non-Rajamouli masala work. It's as if he doesn't know it's not a Rajamouli film. The Eeshwara song is excellent and it needed more creatively imagined visuals when the lines are as deep as Bhikshuvayye Bimbisaarude (Bimbisara himself has become a beggar). Even the rap on Bimbisara has those classic Keeravaani rap elements, where he just repeats the word 'Bimbisara' until you realise there's a tune in there somewhere, breaks the word into pieces, and rhymes words like 'plethora' with Bimbisara. It starts off as somewhat cringy, but he's so committed to it you walk out of the theatre humming the tune.
This is a film that makes you realise how far the difference between a director's vision and execution can be. But luckily for Vasishta, Keeravaani saves the day. A little at least. You might not be thinking about Bimbisara the character as much, but you definitely walk out humming BIMB BIMB BIMB BIMB BIMBISAARA. It's Bimbing Time.