Custody Movie Review: A Playful Venkat Prabhu Entertainer That Gets A Bit Formulaic

Venkat Prabhu’s self-aware writing, laced with humour, is the most likeable attribute of the film and it almost outweighs the dullness that pervades the second half
Custody Movie Review
Custody Movie ReviewFilm Companion

Director: Venkat Prabhu

Writers: Venkat Prabhu, Abburi Ravi

Cast: Naga Chaitanya, Krithi Shetty, Arvind Swamy

The most enjoyable bits of Custody emerge from its self-aware writing. The film might be set in 1998 but songs and dialogues from recent films and at one point, a hilarious reference to Vikram (2022) are planted to evoke humour. Sure, we, the audience, know that they are anachronistic elements. Even Venkat Prabhu, who wrote and directed the film, is aware of this fact. Yet, he doesn’t refrain from sprinkling this self-aware, fourth-wall-breaking humour that urges us to not take the film seriously, even if some unexpected turns indicate otherwise. But this quality is a double-edged sword. For instance, in the second half, the jump from a playful sequence to an important character’s death feels incredibly curt because Custody becomes a completely different film for a few brief moments. Although the protagonist is pushed into dire situations and the threat is omnipresent, the playful undertone of the writing blinds us from foreseeing the serious turn the film takes at this point. The sad song, crooned by Ilaiyaraaja, unfortunately, comes across as unintentionally hilarious because it sounds like it has no business being in a fun, action thriller like this. Despite such hiccups, the film retains its quirk till the very end, and this commitment is what I found the most admirable about Custody.

The premise of Custody is simple in its design. Shiva (Naga Chaitanya), a constable has to protect an influential hooligan named Raju (Arvind Swamy) from being murdered because he is the key witness in a big legal battle that’s connected to the political bigshots. Now, there are no massive surprises here and you know that the chief minister (Priyamani, in a one-note character) is orchestrating the operation while Sarathkumar's Natarajan is spearheading the manhunt. It’s an extremely successful template of an underdog battling the odds to accomplish his mission. There’s something innately ‘massy’ about such underdog stories and it’s once again proven in Custody.

Naga Chaitanya in Custody
Naga Chaitanya in Custody

What makes the film enjoyable despite the familiar plot points are its likeable characters, humour in the oddest of situations and some well-shot action set pieces. The writing is clean and gives some purpose to the characters. Shiva’s father, for instance, is the driver of a mortuary van that they borrow to transport Raju in. He gets a cool punch dialogue too. “Savalani ekkinchadam naaku naa bandi ki kotthem kaadhu (Neither my vehicle nor I are strangers to carrying dead bodies),” he warns Raju. Shiva’s love interest, Krithi Shetty’s Revathy (of course, there’s a hilarious reference to veteran actor Revathy) is a driving school teacher and this is also used at one point.

The moment when Shiva decides to save Raju’s life leads up to a cracker of an action sequence that’s stitched up to look like a single shot. And Venkat Prabhu doesn’t give Naga Chaitanya a traditional ‘mass’ elevation shot although it is a wonderful heroic moment; the heroism here emanates from the fact that Shiva is choosing to do the right thing. This trait is established right during his intro scene, where Shiva stops the CM’s convoy to let an ambulance pass through. We later learn that this is an echo of something that transpired in Shiva’s past. That brings me to a qualm I have with Custody and films in general. Why do our heroes need to be given personal motivation? Why can’t Shiva just be a sincere constable who is driven by sheer rigour and willing to put his life on the fence for the truth to prevail? Venkat Prabhu offered no personal ‘reason’ to Vinayak Mahadev for being unapologetically immoral in Mankatha (2011), neither did Abdul Khaliq have a personal motivation to save the CM in the much more inventive Maanaadu (2021). However, by giving Shiva a personal vengeance angle, the filmmaker gravitates towards the formula in Custody. Sure, Shiva’s integrity is encapsulated in his first scene, but I feel the exclusion of the backstory would have made Shiva a bigger hero.

Naga Chaitanya in Custody
Naga Chaitanya in Custody

Speaking of formula, the love story between Shiva and Revathy is harmless but doesn’t quite add much value to the film. It precipitates a song-and-dance sequence—placed dangerously close to the opening number—that plays out like a tribute to the colourful ‘90s songs. While it’s definitely not temper-testing like the love stories in some of the recent films, it does make you wonder what’s holding Venkat Prabhu back from getting into the fun part sooner. Maanaadu, for instance, had its share of lighter moments but they were all organically embedded in the set-up and the screenplay didn’t dedicate itself to these portions. Custody does the opposite. It spends a chunk of runtime to just establish the love story.

It might sound like I am complaining a lot but that’s perhaps because of the high standards set by Venkat Prabhu's inventive screenplay in Maanaadu. So naturally, when we see the director make some orthodox choices, it can be disappointing. If I have to describe Custody in terms of the filmmaker's works, it's a Biriyani-like (2013) narrative tainted by the perils of Masssu Engira Masilamani's (2015) formula. But that doesn't mean that Custody is a lousy film. It's anything but lazy. In fact, the film brims with energy and Venkat Prabhu-isms. Take, for instance, the incredibly funny dig at the film's Tamil-Telugu bilingual format in the second half. I don't want to ruin it for you, but when you see it, you know that it's a scream and nobody other than Venkat Prabhu would have done something so quirky in an otherwise serious film. Likewise, there's a superb cameo in the second half (there are three cameos but you'll know which I'm not talking about when you see the film) by a veteran and the way Venkat Prabhu pays tribute to the actor is hilarious. 

Arvind Swamy
Arvind Swamy

Arvind Swamy is great as the charming devil once again and makes the film immensely watchable; he is simply delightful. And Naga Chaitanya too sells the honesty of this character convincingly. The action too, thankfully, offers respite from the nonsensical sequences we got accustomed to seeing Friday after Friday. The sequences set in the police station sequence and dam, complemented by SR Kathir's sun-burnt frames exude ambition and are executed brilliantly. But the music is underwhelming and left a lot to be desired. A lot.

Venkat Prabhu's inclination towards some formulaic elements raises suspicion whether the burden to pander to a new section of the audience compelled him to compromise on his style to an extent. However, the fact that the film draws its heroism and most of the clap-worthy moments from the writing, instead of aiming for low-hanging fruits proves that he didn't let go of his core strength. Even serious scenes are bookended by quirk and that's the beauty of the film; the Venkat Prabhu mark is evident. Custody has something that many big-budget action films lack these days: a personality.

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